Best Shots Comic Reviews: DEFENDERS, ANIMAL MAN, More

Best Shots Comic Reviews

'Rama readers! You ready for the big show? Best Shots has a ton of new reviews for your reading pleasure, including a guest review from Best Shots founder Troy Brownfield! So let's kick off with Pierce Lydon, as he lets it rip with a look at the latest issue of Defenders...


Defenders #4

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, Brian Thies and Matt Hollingsworth

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Pierce Lydon

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Click here for preview

I’ve always considered that comics reverberated a certain vibe through the people that read them. This is mostly true of older comics. Depending on the writers and artists that someone liked, you could usually make reasonable assumptions about their character or mental state. Frank Miller fans could be dark and guarded. Stan Lee fans could be eternal optimists or worse yet, extremely affected by good salesmanship. Steve Gerber fans could be a little out there. (Not sure why I used all Daredevil creators here, but you get the point.) As superhero comics have begun to sell less, their publishers have begun to take a more standard approach to the kinds of books they put out across the board. This means less Kamandi and New Gods and more Deadpool books. So then the guy that reads Annhilators and the girl that reads Catwoman become ostensibly the same.

Defenders is a book that goes against that notion. It’s a book that fans of Matt Fraction’s work, perhaps most notably Casanova, will surely enjoy and eagerly try to enlighten their friends with. Sadly, those friends “won’t get it” because the vibe that Defenders gives off is malcontent with the way any normal person, comic book character or not, thinks. It’s meant for the obsessive, slightly paranoid, wholly romantic and incredibly hopeful kind of reader that wants to believe that Tom Waits wrote “Martha” just for Doctor Strange and that there’s more out there because Neil deGrasse Tyson says there is.

Defenders #4 doesn’t succeed because it tells a good story within the confines of twenty pages, though it does. It doesn’t succeed because it narrows the focus of the entire “magic Avengers” team down to their enigmatic leader, though thankfully it does. It doesn’t succeed because it can even make the most casual reader notice something is a little weird about this book and send the most obsessive one on wild, Google hunt through the Internet, though it can. It succeeds because it appeals to the most basic parts of our humanity (love, loss, longing, attraction) and it does so without booting up the hype machine for another round of “things will never be the same!” or “someone dies!” Someone actually comes back to life!

What’s crazy is that there’s more going on in the gutters of this book than is going on in the actual panels of most mainstream comics today; a line from “Martha” just before she first returns to Strange, the #concordance hashtag signaling a trend for the rest of the book, “Everything Connects.” And truly everything does or can or might or might not! Even the story’s title, “The French Drop,” hints at something larger at play. That’s the beauty of Fraction’s work here. It’s bigger than twenty pages. It bleeds into the rest of pop culture. It has been born from the work of Johnny Cash and Bill Hicks. It’s a direct descendant of these things.

Michael Lark’s artwork only intensifies the transcendent nature of the book. A definite change from the cleaner offerings from Terry and Rachel Dodson in the first arc, Lark with help from Stefano Gaudiano, Brian Thies and Matt Hollingsworth, delivers a moody interpretation of what really is a sad story. Doctor Strange and Martha’s reunion is a huge moment but it’s made bigger by the fact that the artwork is mostly muted and dark until that point. What’s so telling as well is that Martha’s return doesn’t change the color palette. In fact, it’s clear from the start that Strange knows what he must do and their time together is tinted blue. It’s a shame that this team won’t be sticking around.

Defenders is an example of what can happen when a creator is let loose. This book is the Ramones in ‘77. It is Cobain becoming a specter of teen spirit. It is the imagination of a madman married to the determination of tyrant. This is the moment when you realize the person you’ve been with your whole life is not the one and the one who was, is actually happier with someone else. This is running away to join the circus instead of getting a real job. This is putting your heart before everything. This is good comics, plain and simple.


Animal Man #7

Written by Jeff Lemire

Art by Steve Pugh, Travel Foreman, Jeff Huet, Lovern Kundzierski

Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Click here for preview

In an interview with Newsarama this past week, Jeff Lemire talked about “Animal vs. Man,” the new two-parter that begins with Issue #7 of Animal Man. Lemire spoke about how the story is intended to show how cut off Buddy Baker is from the rest of the DC heroes. To do this, Lemire intends to focus on Buddy’s family and what they’re currently going through. From the beginning of the comic, this goal is evident, but because all of these problems have been compounding on each other, the issue feels too cramped and I don’t see how Lemire will satisfactorily deal with all the issues Buddy has to deal with. Because it’s so loaded, Animal Man suffers from lack of even pacing and methodical storytelling and, much like Issue #6, it feels like we’re waiting to get the story moving again.

While Jeff Lemire goes back to the familial drama in this issue, it’s uneven. Buddy Baker’s wife is angry because he and his son keep arguing about the fact that most of Buddy’s time has been spent on his daughter who is developing an ability to communicate with dead animals. His son, Cliff, has become increasingly disturbed by the amount of attention his sister gets from his father. Throw in an angry mother-in-law and the growing undead animal violence, and you have a list of Buddy’s current problems. Not all of these are resolved, but most of them appear to be. Lemire tries to pack a lot in to this issue, and this ends up impairing the flow of the comic.

Like most other fans of Animal Man , I’ve enjoyed Buddy’s family being more involved in his world, but Lemire stuffs complication after complication without giving the conflicts room to breathe. Angry at the situation her granddaughter is in, Ellen’s mother storms out of the RV just as Buddy returns from town, but the conflict is never revisited whereas Cliff’s problem is solved five pages after its introduction.

What I really enjoyed was the connection made to Scott Synder’s Swamp Thing. The Rot is related to The Red, and while this connection was teased in earlier issues, Alec Holland is directly mentioned. I look forward to seeing how Buddy’s issue connects to Alec’s, and how Lemire and Snyder will get their characters together in a future story currently titled "Deadworld."

For most of the issue, Steve Pugh takes the reigns from Travel Foreman. Foreman only draws five pages where as Pugh takes the remaining fourteen. While Loven Kunderzierski provides the colors for the entire book (making for a consistent visualization), Pugh does the shadowing on his own illustrations. I bring this up because Pugh’s shadowing is much more textured and even than Jeff Huet’s. In Foreman’s pages, Buddy is depicted as a block of shadows. In one panel, his body is be made up of so many shadowy designs that he looks unnatural. With Huet, characters are either fully shadowed, or not shadowed at all. To have two different artists in a book is fine, but I found Pugh’s to be the more interesting of the two.

Pugh doesn’t get a chance to really flex his chops until we enter The Rot/Earth in Buddy’s dream. Here, he breaks away from the traditional comic format and gets creative with his panel construction, going for jagged lines, and misshapen images. In designing his monsters, Pugh eschews symmetry to make for a more unnatural look and where The Rot is meant to be a place of pain and suffering, Pugh creates the right tone of disgust and fear drawing what is easily the most appealing imagery in the comic.

Much like Geoff Johns, Lemire is trying to give more complexity to a character with a simple, esoteric talent. Where the issue fails is in its attempt at giving enough time to each member of Buddy’s family. And while the cover tells us we’ll see the reveal of Animal Woman, this part of the story is given the least amount of time. The pacing of the comic feels uneven. Lemire is trying to resolve familial issues while still creating a larger conflict that will engage readers but the issue doesn’t read as well as the first few. My problems don’t end with me dismissing Animal Man; it’s still a great book, and one of the biggest surprises of the new 52. But whereas the series has such a strong start, this latest issue feels mediocre in comparison.


Age of Apocalypse #1

Written by David Lapham

Art by Roberto De La Torre and Lee Loughridge

Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jake Baumgart

'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Click here for preview

The approach taken by the creative team David Lapham, Roberto De La Torres and Lee Loughridge on Age of Apocalypse is definitely unique, both in style and storytelling, but somewhere falls short of its predecessors. What was an exciting alternate take on the X-Men’s future, with colorful costumes and a (comparatively) lighter feel overall, now resembles something dark and even more gritty than even the original series. It is with this transition that Age of Apocalypse #1 loses some of its charm.

One of the best parts of the previous Age of Apocalypse tales is the alternate take on some of Marvel’s best characters. It was intriguing to see the way these new relationships formed, like Magneto and Rogue as an item and Sabretooth’s turn as a good guy, and new characters like Morph and Blink that made those stories fan-favorites. However, it is these aspects that are missing from this new #1. It may be because most of the heroes were killed off in the last AoA story, but a book about William Stryker as super trained soldier of fortune or Donald Pierce is not going to be a popular X-title. It blurs the line on who the reader is suppose to be rooting for in this dystopia and, by the end of the story, it’s still not entirely clear. This is due in part to the fact that the AoA versions of what are normally antagonists in the normal Marvel Universe are still not relatable or heroic. Instead, they are unsavory dredges and it is hard to hope they defeat anyone. This isn’t to say that it is essentially a bad book. One can see the talent in David Lapham’s writing with the pacing and overall A to B storytelling. However, it still doesn’t mean that the book is less distracting by trying to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

The art also seems to be stuck in the same problem as the writing. De La Torre and Loughridge are really on point with the art on this book but it doesn’t seem to fit in well with the rest of the AoA world. Although some of the angles of the characters' anatomy can be distracting, like the way a character’s hair falls or the clutter of a busy background, the figures are solid and concise and really can provide a reader with some nice details of this possible dystopia. The tone of a world falling apart all around the characters is captured perfectly with the rubble and random smoke stakes being guarded by Sentinels. It completely makes sense for a world where a war between Apocalypse and everyone else has destroyed most of the world.

Loughridge adds an excellent texture to the backgrounds with a sort of stylized ink smear that both conveys action and adds to the grime of the surrounding world. The flourishes of gas, fire or other natural phenomenon add an artistic detail that makes the page overall more intriguing and really capture the eye. However, it is such a departure from the original take on the Age of Apocalypse that it seems off. Sure, this is exactly the way a book about a future lost should look, but one can’t be sure this is the way an AoA book should look. It feels more like a crime drama or perhaps a more human story instead of the colorful, super heroric-style of the original AoA books took.

Although a unique take on a popular Marvel favorite, Age of Apocalypse #1 misses the mark and might not be the best suggestion for fans of the previous AoA books. With the majority of fan-favorite characters killed off or not present, what made this alternate story line so much fun the first time is essentially gone. Instead, a book with the X-Men’s usually roster of villainous dirtbags take the center stage and try to carry out, not only their mission, but the AoA storyline itself. Although professional and well done, the writing and art on this book might not be strong enough coating to swallow this pill.


Green Arrow #7

Written by Ann Nocenti

Art by Harvey Tolibao, Richard Horie and Tanya Horie

Lettering by Rob Leigh

Published by DC Comics

Review by Jake Baumgart

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Click here for a preview

Now this feels more like a New 52 reboot. Although some elements, like the costume and supporting characters, remain the same from the previous issues, Ann Nocenti and Harvey Tolibao have definitely provided a new take on Green Arrow. Although it isn’t perfect, it is leaps and bounds better than the previous installment by playing down the details that didn’t work and playing up the new, younger version of Oliver Queen.

Perhaps the best detail of this book was the addition of the Skylarks to Green Arrow's rogues gallery. In the Skylarks, Ollie actually has a foe that is both formidable and complimentary to the character. Besides being deadly and out to destroy Green Arrow (otherwise they wouldn’t be villains, right?) they match his interest in his arsenal with promises of even better arrows. More importantly, the match his level of ego and self-interest by approaching him as rabid fangirls and even taking it to the bedroom. Instead of the random villainous archetypes, the Skylarks are a perfect addition to the book, and are a great way to sort of restart this book. The new trick arrows are another great detail, really seeming inventive and unique. Instead of just sticking some kind of pre-existing weapon on the end of an arrow, the idea of a blanket arrow to stop aerial attacks or the way the cat-of-nine-tails arrow is presented are small details that really make this story fun.

Nocenti does an excellent job of capturing the distracted, self-indulgent nature of Oliver Queen but is still able to make him likeable. The subtext really conveys that this is a man that is distracted by his life as a business heir and truly feels the call for adventuring. Another highlight to the issue was the downplaying of the two characters that assist Green Arrow behind the scenes. They actually feel more like tech support instead of baseless Gen X'ers that were crammed into the book in the first place.

Where the book loses some of its traction is in the artwork. It is hit-or-miss throughout the book, and can really become distracting more often than it’s complementary to the story. Details that begin to catch the eye are the very feminine eyes on every character, especially Ollie, and the strange sort of puckered thin lips. The Skylarks look beautiful and enticing, exactly how one would expect them to look, it just feels like their looks and details started to bleed onto the other characters though. It is nice to see an Oliver Queen that doesn’t look like a superhero stuffed into a suit. Instead, he physically resembles a handsome, young billionaire that also moonlights as a hero. Another favorite is the panel work Tolibao does when Green Arrow is getting undressed by the Skylarks. Without ruining the book for anyone, the goggles hitting the martini glass was an excellent touch and really worked great for the story. Tolibao is definitely present when it comes to bringing the details. There seems to be a ton of thought put into the extras that surround the characters and even the details on the characters themselves. The lines make sense and add an extra texture to the book that recalls older, silver age, books that felt more like high adventure than serious super hero drama.

However, too much of a good thing is the downfall of the book here. Sometimes too many of these details can really clutter a smaller panel and this happened quite a few times in the story. It makes the eye too busy to focus on the important details of the panel and can easily distract from the story. It can also create the illusion of a very tedious page with too much information stuffed into it.

Although a reader or fan of Green Arrow might not be sold based on this first outing by the creative team, it is certainly intriguing enough to see where it goes, which is exactly how a reboot book should be. The new take by Nocenti and Tolibao is unique to the character and to the rest of the DC books on the shelves and feels like a good fit for Green Arrow.


Supurbia #1

Written by Grace Randolph

Art by Russell Dauterman, Gabriel Cassata

Lettering by Steve Wands

Published by BOOM! Studios

Reviewed by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

My knowledge of Grace Randolph extends as far as knowing that she was the host of Marvel’s weekly video comedy show The Watcher and still hosts her own show Beyond The Trailer, but I also think this is her first foray into comics. In trying to learn more about Randolph, I also discovered that she has a background in performing arts and comedic improv. I bring this up because her book Superbia has elements of humor in it, as well as references to well known titles in the comics world — both of which are utilized well. A comic that’s part The Boys and part The Incredibles, Supurbia looks at the mundane and often humorous lives of the husbands and wives of superheroes in a well-paced, well-written, and immediately engaging story.

In five pages, Grace Randolph gives readers everything they need to understand the premise of the comic. A group of heroes known as the Meta Legionnaires owns a housing development in which all of their heroes live. Each character gets a single page introduction, but it’s enough to establish their personalities. Their newest member is Robert White, also known as “Bulldog,” and much of the comic follows his wife Eve who, as a complete outsider to the superhero world, is the lens through which readers enter Randolph’s quirky world.

Along with Bulldog are other characters who mimic big-time heroes in the DC and Marvel universes: “Sovereign” (Superman), “Night Fox” (Batman), “Batu” (Wonder Woman), and “Marine Omega” (Captain America). Since this is an introductory issue, Randolph spends all of her time on character development. Not much happens beyond giving us a sense of what kind of people the Meta Legionnaires are, but this isn’t a complaint. As a four-part series, Randolph doesn’t have a lot of time to introduce her characters before launching into the plot, which seems pretty established by the end of the book.

Using known heroes as templates for her fictional world, Randolph is able to draw readers in so that their perceptions are grounded in exoteric knowledge. Without ever being given a background to Sovereign, I can already guess that he’s probably an alien. When writing about Night Fox (whose real name is Paul Fritsche), Randolph throws in as many Batman and Robin references as possible. She even connects Fritsche to Bruce Wayne by making Night Fox a home name. Every family in the comic gives some reference to the Night Fox marketing giant either through a costume, a mug or a soft drink.

This also creates an air of humor — not anything that’s out-and-out laughable, but the tone is jocular enough that it allows the more serious parts of the book to resonate. Sovereign, for example, has a dark side. While never fully established, I guessed his super powers include the ability to hear, feel or predict things all over the world. At one point, he’s sitting on his bed talking to his girlfriend and he tells her “A bus has crashed outside Talara, Peru. And in St. Petersburg a man is about to hang himself in his apartment.” Then we’re given a singe panel beat where we can see just how disturbed he is by his powers. This kind of pacing allows for characters to develop enough so that Randolph doesn’t have to beat her readers over the head with intended emotion.

On first glance, I wasn’t overly impressed with Russell Dauterman’s artwork. It’s cartoonish and simple, and in the latter part of the comic, the layouts start to lack detail. But, Dauterman’s style complements the mostly light-hearted feel of the book, and he characterizes people well through his style. When he draws Sovereign, he gives the character almost no affect. Given Sovereign’s dark persona, the lack of emotion helps impress his alienation from the rest of the group members.

My only complaint about the comic would be the final page. It’s not wholly surprising given the hints dropped throughout the book, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the story. It’s meant to bridge the introduction to the rest of the conflict, but it’s a jarring transition. That said, I’m intrigued to see how it fits into the story. Given that this is supposed to be about the families of the superheroes, I wonder how Randolph will mesh the action one would expect from an issue about Batman or Superman to an issue about Lois Lane and Vicki Vale. Either way, Supurbia is a well-written comic with a clever premise and interesting characters, and I hope others find it as intriguing.

In Case You Missed It!


Between Gears

Written and Illustrated by Natalie Nourigat

Published by Image Comics

Review by Troy Brownfield

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

I don’t do much in the way of regular reviews these days, primarily because I felt the need to recuse myself if the face of writing for some of the very companies that Best Shots covers. However, I did want to leave the return visit option open in case I found a work that I really just wanted to share with the Best Shots readership. Between Gears is that kind of book. If you’ve never seen Natalie Nourigat’s work before, prepare to be delighted.

One of the things that I found compelling about Between Gears would be Nourigat’s sense of commitment. The premise of the book is that Nourigat documented every day of her senior year of college in comic-journal form. Every. Freaking. Day. Events earth-shaking (break-ups) and mundane (watching TV shows online) are documented with equal skill and fervor. The diary thing wasn’t just a gimmick to Nourigat; she meant this.

And despite our obvious differences (gender, age, etc.), I readily connected to Nourigat’s experience on a couple of levels. One, I remember my own college experience pretty vividly. And two, having spent seven years as a professor at a women’s college, I could see the echoes of what Natalie went through here in the decisions that my own students had to make. For those reasons, Between Gears feels extremely immediate and refreshingly real.

In terms of what we learn about Nourigat, well, take your pick. She’s disarmingly honest, quite funny, cute in a non-annoying way, eager to devour new comics (she’s just as excited to really read “Wonder Woman” for the first time as she is to watch the finale of “Lost”), and not afraid to examine her own decisions. She really puts it out there in terms of her feelings, whether it’s contemplating the end of a relationship or changing her major at what seems like the 11th hour; she doesn’t hide much. That said, my overall lingering impression probably rests mostly with the humorous moments, that dizzying sense of fun that college has. She generates some laugh-out-loud bits when it comes to the inevitable drinking tales, and there’s one panel involving the questionable appropriateness of a certain pair of Christmas socks that totally cracked me up.

What really makes it sing, apart from Nourigat’s own assured writing, is the art. She basically demonstrates two major styles in the book. One is a more realistic approach, frequently reserved for more serious occasions, while the other is a more anime/chibi-style that creeps in for funny bits. This is rolled out in a fairly natural way; after all, isn’t life a combination of feelings and textures? Nourigat manages to reflect that visually. Of great value to the collection is the back matter, wherein Nourigat explains things like elements of her approach, including the juxtaposition of styles, and her efforts to properly represent her hair (which she chopped a couple of weeks into the process).

Between Gears carves out a special niche in the realm of autobiographical comics. By turns whimsical and wistful, it captures a deeply personal span of time in a way that can be appreciated by readers across the spectrum. Nourigat should be proud of this work; it’s quite the accomplishment, and it makes me extremely curious to see what she’s going to do next. 

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