Best Shots Comic Reviews

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Enjoy your holiday? Best Shots did, too, as we ring in the New Year with the big column! So let's start with the latest issue of Secret Avengers, as Warren Ellis begins to wind down his run...


Secret Avengers #20

Written by Warren Ellis

Art by Alex Maleev and Nick Filardi

Lettering by Dave Lanphear

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Click here for preview

Tired of the hype-heavy, low-impact status quo for superhero events? Want an ambitious standalone story that cuts through dense continuity like a shark? Want a 20-page story that hits way above its weight class?

Check out Secret Avengers #20. No, seriously, check it out. You won't regret it.

This is a book that surprised me, and I'm not often surprised these days. This is a book that was so good, I went back to the shop and picked up the rest of Warren Ellis's run… which perhaps not surprisingly, is also killer awesome. Think of a Marvel version of Justice League Unlimited, in terms of its focus on a single character and getting to the action quickly, but filtered through the kind of high-concept plot science that only Ellis can accomplish, and you've got this underappreciated gem.

In this story, Ellis focuses on Natasha Romanova, the scarily effective KGB superspy known as the Black Widow. Her team killed in action, she suddenly finds herself flung a year into the past, put on a mission to save Steve Rogers and the rest… all without being seen and disrupting the timestream. It's a clever sci-fi plot in an espionage story's body, but Ellis really thinks outside of the box for this one. Having the Black Widow take point on this story is the perfect choice, as her main point of characterization is that she is ridiculously competent, that she's able to jump through time and put the pieces together without question or doubt. But what makes this story memorable are these small flashes of humanity, whether it's Natasha saying how much she hates time travel, or a henchman mourning over his master's gravestone. And the fact that you literally need no prior reading to get this book — seriously, just go with the flow, it'll make sense, just fill in the blanks, promise — and you have yourself a really satisfying single issue.

Alex Maleev is another great pick for this issue, really playing up the stakes by having a realistic, gritty tone. It's interesting, because this isn't quite his most polished-looking work, with the inking on the costumes seeming a little less smooth than his usual, but to be honest, that doesn't detract from my enjoyment of the story one bit. There's one sequence in particular where Maleev and Ellis riff on an iconic comic strip that damn near knocked me out of my chair when I first saw it, and Maleev's sense of the dramatic really heightens what could otherwise have been a fairly monotonous story, visual-wise. The one weakness that Maleev has, however, is one of design — there are a number of characters that Natasha visits in order to change the future without being seen, but they have a tendency to look fairly similar in Maleev's hands, which can make following the twisty story a little harder than necessary.

While that flaw keeps the book from perfection, I have to say that Secret Avengers is still one fantastic read. In an era where the stakes feel flimsy because of retcon resurrections, this story really benefits from the ultra-compression of 20 pages. The question isn't so much will Natasha pull off this impossible mission, but how, and you never know what direction she'll take in the short window she has. With the eclectic team membership with the likes of Steve Rogers, War Machine and Moon Knight, I can understand why more people haven't been checking out Secret Avengers. That's a mistake. This is a high-concept spy-fi thriller that doesn't just demand your attention — it earns it.


American Vampire #22

Written by Scott Snyder

Art by Rafael Albuquerque and Dave McCaig

Lettering by Jared Fletcher

Published by Vertigo

Review by Lan Pitts

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Twenty-two issues in and almost two years later, American Vampire is still one of my go-to books that I recommend to a person looking to get into reading comics, and this issue is a prime example on why that is.

If you haven't been following the book since it came out, there's nothing to really stop you here. It's the beginning of a new arc, new characters, but adds to the mythos of what the American vampire really is. Here, we have Travis Kidd, a greaser-type nineteen-year-old that just happens to be quite adept at killing vampires. Of course his past comes to light and a certain vamp has wiped out his family and everyone he loves. Travis is a bit different from the slayers we've seen before. He's quick, agile, and a slight bit eccentric. He's a troubled youth, but his narration shows he is wise beyond his years.

Set in the 1950s, which is almost where I thought a book like this would thrive as it was the beginning to American pop culture. There are some minor clichés here, but the set up is so clean, you can't help but root for Travis in the other three issues to come in the arc. Agent Hobbes sneaks in and his presence is the one thing that ties everything mostly together. There's no Pearl, Henry, Skinner or Felicia, but there doesn't need to be. Snyder has taken the concept of vampires here and taken them nationwide, and not just pigeonholed into any one part of the country. Everything in this issue feels self-contained and would be easy on a new reader's brain.

Having Rafael Albuquerque back in the artistic driver's seat is like watching one of your favorite movies and falling back in love with it. While Jordi Bernet effectively did his thing and worked out some of the best visuals the book has had during its run, Albuquerque almost seems like he was born to recreate Smalltown, USA with a slice of macabre. His art has never been more kinetic here as the level to detail on everything from hot rod game of chicken to an old-fashioned rumble in a diner, nothing comes across as mundane. Dave McCaig's colors here with his usual pallet, but concentrates more on blues and purples, rather than the warmer choices he's more prolific with. It adds a certain layer of moodiness that fits right in Albuquerque's heavy shadows.

With the original dream team that first made this book the hit it is back together, it makes you wonder how comics could get any more perfect. As mentioned, if you've heard all the buzz about this book but not sure where to start and intimidated by books in their double-digits, fear not. American Vampire #22 reads just as good and strong as it were a first issue. So hop in, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.


Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates #5

Written by Jonathan Hickman

Art by Brandon Peterson, Esad Ribic, Dean White, Jose Villarrubia, Jim Charampidis

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Edward Kaye

‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Click here for preview

When I first heard that Jonathan Hickman was writing the latest series of The Ultimates, I knew we were going to be in for quite the ride, and so far he’s definitely not disappointed. In typical Hickman style, the first four-issue arc of the series has been packed full of huge high-concept ideas, thrilling action, and gripping intrigue, and it also had a brilliant “surprise” ending (inverted quotes because I saw it coming a mile away).

In this fifth issue Hickman takes a step back from the action to look at the wider impact of recent events, and examine the toll they’ve taken on our heroes, as well as the effect on the world political stage and the global economy. As the book is working as the backbone of the Ultimate line, it’s not only the impact of Reed Richards’ “City” and the destruction of Asgard that is considered, but also the collapse of the SEAR, which occurred in Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye, the appearance of a new Spider-Man, and recent mutant events. There is very little action in the issue, but at this point in the story it feels right to take a breather and reflect upon recent events. It feels very much like the eye of the storm though, as Hickman also begins to plant the seeds of the next major story arc.

The issue contains very little monologue or narration, and Hickman allows the artwork to tell the bulk of the story, with the assistance of some incredibly well written dialogue between characters, which comes over as incredibly natural, because it feels like Hickman has caught the essence of these characters, and knows exactly what they would say in any given situation. It’s a well-plotted and well-paced issue, which spends just the right amount of time looking at each of the key characters from the team, and their current state. Some extra attention is paid to Thor, who is fairing particularly badly after the fall of Asgard and the loss of his powers - in that he’s being driven mad by the voices of the Norse pantheon living in his head. This scene also provides some light comic relief, which is sure to draw a giggle from readers. Being a scientist myself, I typically have a hard time with comic book science, as it’s hard for me to bring my suspension of disbelief into play. Jonathan Hickman though is one of the few current comic writers who is able to do comic book science convincingly to me - his ideas have a great blend of science fact, science theory, and science fiction that make them almost believable, especially within the fictional world of the story.

Esad Ribic is the regular artist on Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates, but on this issue he only provides five pages of artwork, stepping aside to allow Brandon Peterson to fill in as artist for most of the issue. Peterson’s artwork is not entirely unlike Ribic’s, so the majority of readers will probably not notice the change of artist midway through the issue. Peterson’s artwork here reminds me somewhat of the work of Francis Leinil Yu, particularly in his use of inked contour lines on faces and clothing. Often adding lots of lines to faces can makes characters look really old, but Peterson pulls the effect off perfectly here. His linework has a very detailed look to it and his characters all display very realistic anatomy and a range of highly emotive facial expressions, which are always appropriate for the scene. With his inking, he favors heavy blacks, which really adds to the thrilling espionage feel of the certain scenes. He also provides some really nice finishes, and textures shadows with hatching and a number of other neat tricks.

Interestingly, this issue was actually colored by three different colorists. Thankfully though, all three artists color their sections so similarly that I actually had to refer to the issue’s credits to see who did what. In keeping with the feeling of the book in general, the colorists utilize a slightly muted palette, with lots of earth tones. It’s not all dark and gloomy though, and they do a great job coloring light projections and the astral presences of the Norse gods, who have an eerie ethereal glow to them.

Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates #5 is a great issue, which while slower in pace than the opening arc, is highlighted by some interesting politics and great dialog, and really cements the book’s place as the center of the relaunched Ultimate Universe. This is the best The Ultimates has been since Mark Millar left the series.


Teen Titans #4

Written by Scott Lobdell

Art by Brett Booth, Norm Rapmund and Andrew Dalhouse

Letters by Travis Lanham

Review by Erika D. Peterman

‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Click here for preview

It’s a standard scene in superhero comics: Two mighty beings duke it out in midair among towering buildings. Trash talk and extreme property damage follow. In Teen Titans #4, the main event is a Times Square slugfest between Wonder Girl and Superboy on New Year’s Eve, and it’s entertaining in a generic sort of way. Come to think of it, that’s an apt description of this title overall.

Teen Titans is a serviceable comic with pretty art and characters who have the potential to be interesting — especially over-the-top newcomer Bunker, a super-teen who is experiencing life outside of his village in Mexico for the first time. As we’ve been told on every other page, the fledgling Titans are up against the shadowy N.O.W.H.E.R.E. organization, which is out to control or eliminate young metahumans. The concept is solid, and it’s certainly encouraging to see a comic with such a racially diverse cast. But so far, these elements haven't added up to a particularly memorable series.

Visually, there’s plenty of energy in issue #4. Brett Booth’s highly detailed illustrations work especially well in the Times Square scenes, and he does a great job with facial expressions. The dialogue is lively, but some of the exchanges between the characters seem forced. Before admonishing Superboy for his ties to N.O.W.H.E.R.E., Wonder Girl comments on his hotness. It’s also a stretch that Superboy is checking her out while they punch the living daylights out of each other. And considering the bigger picture, why does the usually cool-headed Red Robin throw a major fit when Kid Flash borrows a sweatshirt without asking?

“How is that any different from what N.O.W.H.E.R.E. is doing — stealing teenagers!” Really?

There are glimmers of promise, though, and issue #4 gives readers more insight into the characters. Team leader Red Robin has Batman-like issues in the empathy department. Kid Flash is impetuous and talks as fast as he moves. Poor Skitter, who turns into a gruesome insect creature against her will, is deeply ashamed of her mutation. Wonder Girl, who looks an awful lot like Dazzler in the opening scene, is the brash tough girl. Bunker is flamboyant and effusive. Sweet-natured Solstice appears to have a heart of gold.

The starkly different personalities could lead to some interesting stories about a group of kids who are learning how to use their gifts and work together. Now that the Titans are fully assembled, I’m hopeful that the comic will begin to evolve from a passable read into one that truly stands out from the team-book pack.


Uncanny X-Men #3

Written by Kieron Gillen

Art by Rodney Buchemi, Paco Diaz, Carlos Pacheco, Cam Smith, Walden Wong, Dommo, Rex Lokus and Jim Charalampidis

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by DC Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Click here for preview

A headless Celestial?  A Victorian dandy Mr. Sinister?  An X-Men team that includes more “reformed” villains than true heroes and goes by the moniker "the Extinction Team?"  Kieron Gillen certainly has begun Uncanny X-Men with interesting threats from both outside and within the team. With Uncanny X-Men #3, Gillen and a plethora of artists make those threats far more interesting than our actual heroes.

Mr. Sinister?  Interesting?  There are words that I never thought I'd type in any proximity to each other but Gillen's take on the character as the genesis of a new, "perfect" race at least moves him beyond the traditional mold of mutant villain. Sinister isn't fighting for the survival of his race but is taking the lessons of mutant-kind and applying it to a whole different line of the genetic tree. Gillen undercuts any self-importance around the character by making him into a villain out of an old Victorian novel, blathering on and on about Darwin, nature vs. nurture and his own self-grown new superior race.

The future battle that Gillen sets up isn’t between mutant and humanity or mutant against mutant.  If he follows the path that’s started here, the X-Men are going to be facing something new and something that they know nothing about.  Are these just clones of Sinister they’re battling in a San Francisco museum or are they something else entirely?  Gillen packs the most interesting moments with Sinister into a couple of pages where the armies of Sinister are defeated and a new Sinister shows up to learn from the mistakes of his predecessors.  And then as quickly as the new Sinister shows up, he’s blown off the page, leaving the X-Men to wonder just what the $(*#& they’re dealing with.

With a villain spouting off his own theories of evolution and natural selection, it almost makes perfect sense that you would introduce the Celestials into this story. No one has seemed to know what to do with the Celestial that Neil Gaiman left standing silent in a San Francisco park until Gillen ripped off its head in the first issue of this series. Within one issue, the Extinction Team has to face down both Sinister and a host of Celestials.  Gillen is shooting for big ideas in his book.  His team obviously wants to be an Avengers-level team and those are the type of threats they're tackling.  Hope, Gillen's carryover from Generation Hope even declares the Avengers obsolete after the X-Men face down the Celestials without blinking.

Gillen is aiming large for this issue but he's missing out on the little things.  The most glaring is that the X-Men are practically non-existent in this issue, other than taking up space in the backdrop while Cyclops, Sinister or Hope go into these long expository speeches.  Colossus?  Storm?  Magic?  They're relegated to playing the part of backup singers to Cyclops lead vocals.  With that lack of characters, this book comes off as overly hard.  Wolverine and the X-Men got all of the characters who have a personality while Uncanny X-Men has the characters who just stand around and glare.  Cyclops has become this stone-faced leader of mutants who is so scared or unable to show any emotion or character and his team reflects that.

The art-by-committee in this issue does little to help build any personality in this story.  Carlos Pacheco is supposedly the main artist on this series but he only does the last few pages of this book.  The other pages are filled with artists trying to look like Pacheco and they kind of, sort of succeed on that point.  It looks like Pacheco but it doesn't move through the page like Pacheco’s does.  His art is graceful.  His figures are lean and his characters glide through the page.  The art in this issue capture some of Pacheco's linework but they miss out on the storytelling.  It's not that they have to follow Pacheco's storytelling but it's that they have no style of their own.  The non-Pacheco pages look like they could be plopped in any Marvel comic book.

Uncanny X-Men #3 is a book suffering from an identity crisis.  There are things that Gillen and the artists want this to be and those things are hinted at in this issue but there's never any true connections made between the writing, the art and the audience.  It may not be fair, but Wolverine and the X-Men works better because that book has an energy behind it powered by lively characters and energetic art.  Gillen's Uncanny X-Men has a better story behind it but he's missing the elements that bring his story to life.  He's made Mr. Sinister into an intriguing villain but he's done that at the cost of letting us know who these X-Men are.  There's no energy or momentum behind the characters or the action to make this a compelling issue.


Green Lantern: New Guardians #4

Written by Tony Bedard

Art by Tyler Kirkham, Batt and Nei Ruffino

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by DC Comics

Review by Amanda McDonald

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Click here for preview

The lantern corps represent the spectrum of our emotions — and with Green Lantern Kyle Rayner being in possession of all (or nearly all) of the rings, potentially he is not only the most powerful, but interestingly — the most well rounded lantern. Up to this point the series has involved introducing each of these characters and their reactions to his ring situation, but issue four's cover teases with the promise of "the ring thief revealed," alongside an image of Larfleeze hoarding the lanterns of the others. No big shocker here, but he's not the main culprit — however his introduction to the series, along with his personal "pet" guardian, Sayd, is integral in leading to the reveal of the true ring thief.

In a book such as this one, you can't help but notice the coloring talent required — and Nei Ruffino is the ideal fit for this book. She brilliantly colors the various constructs without overshadowing the details of them. With the black borders and margins, Ruffino's colors really pop off the page, which is something I expect from a book that heavily emphasizes color as a major story element. Also, while lettering usually isn't something that jumps out at the reader — I really appreciate the attention to detail Dave Sharpe puts into differentiating the voices of so many different characters.

While this issue starts to wrap up the arc the series started with, it's actually an okay jumping on point. While you'd miss out on the character development of the first few issues -- Bedard writes this issue as one very accessible to anyone late to the game. Not all writers are well suited for a book with such a large ensemble of characters, but this book has a stellar balance of the main character and his supporting cast. This is an unlikely team of characters, yet they are united in dealing with this situation — though I am curious to see if as the series goes how much that 'team' mentality will continue. Considering the cover design, you think the book will center heavily on the addition of Larfleeze in the plot, though that takes second stage to the interesting take on the Guardians, specifically Ganthet and Sayd.

There is just so much going on in this book -- so many characters, settings, tons of dialogue and action -- and yet, it feels really put together, polished, and well executed. Although I'm not sure how I feel about the big reveal at the end of the book of a large space vessel -- it is the largest thing ever constructed, and literally the size of a solar system. Whoever is responsible for the rings going rogue dwells here, and while it's pretty neat looking, it is clear from Sayd's depiction of it that it is a force to be reckoned with. This sets up the story to introduce even more characters into this already pretty packed cast, which of course runs the risk of becoming too convoluted, though Bedard thus far has balanced this group pretty well and I expect that coming issues will continue on that trend. Of all the Green Lantern titles available right now, this one stands out for me from the rest as being a fun read, showcasing great art, and providing a different take on the GL we've all been accustomed to.


All Star Western #4

Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti

Art by Moritat, Phil Winslade, Gabriel Bautista, and Dominic Regan

Lettering by Rob Leigh

Published by DC Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Click here for preview

Not going to try and backpedal this one, when DC said they were taking Jonah Hex into Gotham City, I was filled with rage that only a comic book fan can muster. Hex ain't no city slicker, don't care if that city was the coal-coated stones of Gotham. All Star Western just hit issue #4 and I'm willing to eat that big ol' plate of crow now. In fact, I'm starting to think taking Jonah Hex out of the traditional “Old West” was the best thing to happen to this character since Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti started the title.

Issue #4 kicks off with Hex wrapping up a simple case for a couple of bucks and getting his nasty face out of town. That is, until a whole pile of cash and Amadeus Arkham (but mainly that $50,000 in cash) convince him to stay and look into a rich kids disappearance. From there, it's a pulpy journey into orphanages, Gotham's sewers, child labor, and a masked figure that doesn't quite fill that whole “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot”. And, as has been the case since Issue #1, this book also includes an interesting back-up story, in this issue introducing a mystical Asian woman called the Barbary Ghost in 1870s San Francisco.

Gray and Palmiotti continually surprise me with their ability to make Jonah Hex a character I care about. He's always going to be fun to read in that Spaghetti Western kind of way, with his “kill them all attitude,” but how long can you maintain that tone? That trick would have gotten old pretty darn fast. The writers clearly understand the delicate balance between grim killer of killers and a man that is truly driven by the demons of his past. And nothing drives Hex more than when he's faced with people that bring harm upon children. Kids are the only real innocence he knows in his violent world. It is that basic drive the fuels the bulk of this issue as Hex and Arkham delve deeper and deeper into Gotham, literally and symbolically. It's fun and maybe a little personally revealing to enjoy Hex's rather aggressive form of interrogation, all while he's trying to save kids. With All Star Western, Gray and Palmiotti are also giving readers a decidedly American take on the Holmes and Watson dynamic. Where the British detective would claim deductive reason and logic as his closest allies, Hex would name his instinct and quick reflexes as his only friends. It an interesting theme running through this title since issue one and I sincerely hope Arkham sticks around once Hex leaves Gotham. Indeed, I could see Arkham's travels with Hex as the dark inspiration that sadly kicks off the destiny we all know he must fulfill.

Art by Moritat is the perfect companion to Gray and Palmiotti's grim and sticky world. There is an unrefined beauty to his lines that help sell the world in which Hex, Arkham, and all manner of villain reside. Unlike a traditional action comic, where we see the action play out over panels, Moritat just gives us the single shot. The steam rising from the bullet wound, gun already going back in the holster. The blood gushing from the neck, the knife already leaving the panel. In doing so, Moritat is able to convey some truly horrible violence, without making us question Hex's methods. Sure, he's walking a pretty fine line, but by focusing on the moment and not the person, we're able to disassociate the act from the man. Interestingly, this is something Jonah Hex can never do personally. Moritat multiple use of the full-page spread, with panel inserts creates a wonderfully cinematic appearance to this title. Working along with colorist Gabriel Bautista, the shadows in old Gotham (above and below) have a life to their own and make fantastic settings all the more believable.

With a back-up story that introduces a new hero to the DC universe with her own rich history only adds to the enjoyment (and financial value) of All Star Western #4. Dealing with issues of cultural assimilation and old world institutions, the Barbary Ghost back-up definitely grabbed my interest and I'm looking to see where they take this character. Without a doubt, this title is one of the strongest from DC since launch and that level of quality has yet to falter. Like the title character, All Star Western gets the job done and gets it done well.

Lenore II #4

Written and Illustrated by Roman Dirge

Published by Titan Magazines

Review by Edward Kaye

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

After having a accumulated a strong cult following over its nine year run at SLG, Lenore has found a new home at Titan Books, and is now being published in full color and on a much more regular quarterly schedule. For those who have never read, or even heard of the series, Lenore is a comic series created by Roman Dirge, and inspired by the poem of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe, which tells the story of a 10 year-old undead girl who lives in a mansion with several creepy friends. It’s as simple as that, and while the series undoubtedly has history, it doesn’t have a strong thread of continuity, and often consists of done-in-one issues or two-parters that lend themselves well to being read by new or casual readers.

In this fourth issue of the series’ second volume, we get the first part of a two-parter called “Beware the Creepig Creeping”, which according to Dirge’s commentary is entirely based off a typo that his friend made on Facebook, where he meant to type “creeping,” but instead wrote “creepig.” From this Innocent typo came the genesis of a bizarre little story about the vengeful embodiment of pork gluttony, who exacts punishment on anyone who dares to eat pork wrapped in pork after midnight. It’s a twisted little tale packed full of the sickest black humor, which Dirge gets away with so easily because his protagonist is an innocent little (undead) girl. Some of the dialog in this issue caused me to let out a few belly laughs, Dirge has a Python-esque grip on humor that appeals greatly to my sensibilities. I particularly like it when he takes a joke and stretches it out to points of ridiculousness before delivering the punchline.

Dirge’s artwork on this issue, and the series in general, has a highly cartoony look to it, which allows him to get away with a lot in terms of gore and violence, because everything looks innocent when it’s been done by a little girl and a rag doll. His linework is very loose in most places, but occasionally he’ll draw something incredible detailed that stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the art. With his inking he sticks mainly to going over his pencils with a medium line-weight of ink, but that’s in fitting with the cartoony style of the comic and suits the art perfectly well. Color is a new factor to this second volume of Lenore, as the first volume was entirely in black & white. Dirge is also responsible for coloring the book, and utilizes a palette containing a lot of pastels and earth tones, to give the book a slightly eerie painted look that elevates the overall look of the art quite significantly.

Some of the best art in the book comes in the form of the double and single page spreads that Dirge draws. On these pages he tightens his penciling up a lot, and throws in a lot more embellishments with the inking and coloring, to make for some lovely pinups.

Along with the main story Dirge also treats fans to a beautiful Lenore Christmas poster, a reprint of the first ever sketch of Lenore, a number of tattoo templates, and a hilarious stream of consciousness issue commentary. It’s quite refreshing to see publishers providing so much bonus material in single issues, and not holding it back for the trade.

There are a lot of Lenore imitators out there these days, but Lenore II #4 reminds us why Roman Dirge is still the very best at what he does, with his fantastic grip on the comedy of the grotesque. 

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