Best Shots Advance: UNCANNY X-MEN #1, LUTHER STRODE #2, More

Kieron Gillen on UNCANNY X-MEN

Greetings, Rama readers! Ready for tomorrow's reviews, today? Best Shots has your back with this week's advance reviews! So let's kick off today with Scott Summers's new team on Utopia, with the new Uncanny X-Men #1...


Uncanny X-Men #1

Written by Kieron Gillen

Art by Carlos Pacheco, Cam Smith and Frank D'Armata

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The Uncanny X-Men aren't what they once were.

After going through their own personal civil war in X-Men: Schism, the team has been split in two, and all I could think when reading the first issue of the relaunched Uncanny X-Men is, "Man, Kieron Gillen is playing with a handicap, here." While Jason Aaron got all of the "cool" characters for Wolverine and the X-Men — Wolverine, Beast, Kitty, Iceman, Gambit, Rogue, Cannonball — Gillen inevitably seems to have the team with a lot less flash. Even though he's put his stamp on many of his main players in the past, from Cyclops and Emma Frost to Colossus, Namor, Magneto and Dr. Nemesis, this book can't help but pale in comparison to its brighter, breezier, and just plain more fun counterpart.

Which, of course, isn't the fairest argument in the world. But wasn't that the point of Schism, to make you pick sides? But I think the big problem with this book isn't so much Gillen's fault, or that Cyclops and his "Extinction Team" isn't a smart idea — it's just that years of other people's storytelling choices are finally coming home to roost. It doesn't matter if Gillen recently told an awesome issue of Colossus becoming the Juggernaut if the character really hasn't gotten any other room to breathe and endear himself to readers since, well, Astonishing X-Men. Storm is another kind of glaring example — for much of the past decade she's really been shuffled to the background of the X-books and seen mostly a Black Panther supporting character, so it's really hard now to root for her and understand her potential as one of the big guns in Cyclops's arsenal. And whereas Jason Aaron was able to pull some real surprises into his lineup, like the teenage Brood or Kid Gladiator, we've seen all of Gillen's team before, and there's no wild card to stir up the pot, to really get you excited and invested in this team.

In other words, there's no Wolverine to stack the deck. And even the recently reinvigorated Cyclops, with all the love and badassitude that Whedon, Fraction and Gillen have given him, is looking more haggard than ever.

But despite Cyclops clearly having lost the popularity war, Gillen does have some interesting ideas for this book. Wolverine's change in mission is apparent, just in high concept — Gillen, meanwhile, has to be a little bit subtler, a little bit less intrinsic. Cyclops is a little bit of a darker character here, and his mission statement has more than a hint of metatext: "The X-Men are the most badass team in the Marvel Universe," you can hear marketing say, "and this is where we're going to prove it." The kid gloves are off, and even though Scott Summers has a greatly diminished team in terms of numbers if not firepower, he'll be damned if he's going to actually act like it. (The backmatter in this book in particular really helps it all click — that's even more foreboding than the main storyline itself.) And so Gillen giving the team a threat to fight early on definitely gives the story a boost, with three of the most memorable moments in the entire script. There's a lot of room for character growth in this team — Storm and Colossus seem like they have the most potential, and they need it — but it's not quite enough to light the Internet on fire. At least, not yet.

Then again, I'm putting a lot of the burden on Kieron Gillen, and it's not all on him. Carlos Pacheco doesn't really makes a strong impression here, and that's to this book's detriment. His work on the issue is totally clean, but it's got zero personality, and that's not the kind of artist you want to put with someone with as quirky a voice as Kieron Gillen — moments like Namor lecherously grinning at Emma Frost's telepathic summons feel so restrained here that much of the humor is sapped. Pacheco has an extremely recognizable, suitable-for-the-masses style, no doubt about it, but it doesn't feel like he's trying to leverage any of the team's designs, to tweak any of them to suit his strengths. Thus, many of the characters do look just a shade goofy in their costumes, as if we're suddenly realizing that maybe these people would look ridiculous in the real world. To be frank, the whole point of relaunching the X-Men series was to give these books a new chance at making a first impression, but visually, Pacheco's presence says that this book is more in keeping with the Greg Land era than taking any bold new direction.

And maybe that's what's holding Uncanny X-Men back from its sister title — Kieron Gillen is bringing his strong pacing, his quirky characters, and some great tactical thinking for Scott Summers and his team, but is he really going far enough? Suddenly, the political drama of Utopia seems to be dimmer than it used to be, and it feels like much of the energy of this team has gone out the window. That's not Kieron Gillen's fault — and in many ways, that's the real mission statement of the X-Men franchise. How do you remind readers of that old Claremont magic, where Colossus, Storm and Magneto were some of the best characters in the Marvel Universe? Gillen has an uphill battle ahead of him, and he's pulling Uncanny X-Men along with the runts of the litter and one artist tied behind his back. But don't count him out just yet.


The Strange Talent of Luther Strode #2

Written by Justin Jordan

Art by Tradd Moore and Felipe Sobreiro

Lettering by Fonografiks

Published by Image Comics

Review by Lan Pitts

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

If you have a line with one point being "Spider-Man" and the other one being "Kick-Ass", somewhere in the middle you're going to find Luther Strode.

Having bought the first issue on a whim, I wasn't quite sure what to feel after I read it. I'm not one for insane amount of violence, especially when it's done by the supposed hero, but here in the second issue, it opens up the world a bit and we realize that Luther Strode is doing his best not to just kick everybody's face in. Those of you not familiar with the title, The Strange Talents of Luther Strode is about this puny kid that resembles the cliché skinny, nerdy high schooler. He eventually gets fed up with that image of himself and orders an old-fashioned muscles like Hercules-type book (I'm sure you've seen old ads for those, especially in comics. Go figure.) and not only does he get strong, he gets powers and basically becomes super human. Two problems: one being the fact that he has disturbing images of world around him now and his concepts of the people that surround him, practically makes them seem like bags of meat. The other being there is somebody else with similar powers and is hardly Mr. Nice Guy.

Now I'm sure their paths will cross eventually, but I like how Justin Jordan has set things up here. It's a slow burn with more emphasis on world and character building than plot advancement. It's taking its time here and with a new character like this, especially in a mini-series, this sort of pace is the best to go. I don't feel overburdened with details and the facts you do need to know are out there. The fact that Luther wants to be a hero and him stopping a robbery proves that, but there are still hints of strong and angry dying to come out.

Tradd Moore's art is quite effective here. It's a good mix between the block-like constructs of John Romita, Jr and the smooth compositions and thin linework of Joe Eisma. His depictions of the violence and beat downs that certain characters experience is over the top and explicit, but in that Mortal Kombat style that you're unsure if you're supposed to take seriously or not. Felipe Sobreiro's colors add the extra bit of intensity and details to the gore and at the same time not the pallet I was expecting, especially after something like Living Morpheus.

The Strange Talent of Luther Strode has already made an impression with audiences, and certainly left me wanting more.


Usagi Yojimbo #141

Written by Stan Sakai

Art by Stan Sakai

Lettering by Stan Sakai

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Review by Edward Kaye

‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Usagi Yojimbo #141 actually marks the 200th overall issue of the series, as prior to its current home at Dark Horse Comics, the title was published first by Fantagraphics Books, then for a short time by Mirage Studios.

To celebrate this landmark occasion, Usagi creator Stan Sakai treats readers to a standalone issue called ‘Two Hundred Jizo’. The tale revolves around a small village that has been taken over by a gang of bandits. An elderly artisan who lives in the village has received a vision from Buddha, telling him that he has to place outside the village 200 stone figures in the likeness of Jizo. Just as he has finished the 199th figure, a long-eared stranger comes to his door seeking shelter from the rain. What follows is a tense story that finds Usagi unarmed, beaten unconscious, and in one of the most dire situations he’s ever experienced.

The tale that Sakai tells in this issue is one that is easily accessible to new readers, with only light references to the events of previous issues, and would make for a great series jumping-on point. The premise of the tale is quite enchanting, and has its roots in Japanese folklore, with Jizo being the embodiment of the Bodhisattva Vow, the aspiration to save all beings from suffering. In Japan it is customary to place statues of Jizo at the intersections of roads and paths so the correct way will be chose.

The body of the story is a relatively simple one, but Sakai manages to use it to tell the reader everything that they would ever need to know about Usagi - that he’s a noble wanderer, who would go out of his way, and do anything within his power, to help out a stranger in need. Sakai’s script for the issue is incredibly well written, and he tells the story mostly though dialogue, and a bit of expository monologue from Usagi. The way that he takes care of the villain of the piece is a wonderfully fitting ending, and he uses the epilogue of the story to deliver an personal message that is sure to bring a smile to fans of Sakai’s work.

It’s tempting to describe Sakai’s art style as cartoony, because his characters are all anthropomorphic creatures. But in reality, the minimalistic look he adopts is actually very intricate and highly expressive. His linework is really quite beautiful, and has fluid look to it that makes it look like drawing these characters comes incredibly naturally to him. His inking on the book has similarly fluidity, utilizing a medium to thick line-weight, cross-hatching to add texture, and tons of amazing finishes that make the final artwork look spectacular.

Being that his characters are anthropomorphic, Sakai uses different types of creatures to tell us about the nature of the character. For example, Usagi is shown as a rabbit, being a calm and peaceful creature, whereas bad guys are often depicted as wild dogs or some other feral creature. He combines this trick with his ability to draw incredibly emotive facial features, to bring his characters to life as expressive, three-dimensional creations.

There’s so much to love about the artwork on this issue that it’s hard to single out any one scene as a favorite, but one that comes to mind is the opening page splash, showing the artisan laying the Jizo out on the ground outside the village. Sakai chooses to set the viewpoint looking down from the top of a hill upon a sea of stone figures, and we see the old man toiling away, as rain pours down from the skies, dripping off the statues, and causing little splash circles in the water puddling beneath his feet. It’s a breathtaking panel that really sets the mood of the story.

Usagi Yojimbo #141 is a great standalone issue that epitomizes everything that fans of Sakai’s work have come to love over the years. If you don’t regularly pick the series up, then this is your perfect opportunity to jump on board. Usagi Yojimbo should have pride of place on every comic fan’s pull list. 

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