Best Shots Comic Reviews: AVENGING SPIDER-MAN, SHADE, More

Howdy, 'Rama readers! Ready for the big column after C2E2? Best Shots has your back, as Brian Bannen takes a look at the latest issue of Avenging Spider-Man...


Avenging Spider-Man #6

Written by Mark Waid and Greg Rucka

Art by Marco Checchetto and Matt Hollingsworth

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

I’ve been enjoying Avenging Spider-Man with Zeb Wells doing the writing duties. His issues are funny and engaging, so I wondered how things would be different with Mark Waid and Greg Rucka at the helm. With a story pulled from the current Daredevil series, Waid and Rucka deliver what is probably the best issue of Avenging Spider-Man yet.

Recently, Daredevil came into possession of the Omega Drive, a piece of hardware full of secretive information on such groups as A.I.M, Hydra, Black Spectre, Agence Byzantine and the Secret Empire. With enough information to take down all organizations at once, the groups have teamed up to get the drive back — by any means necessary. Now, due to his desire for justice, the Punisher has shown up to get the files from Matt Murdock, while Spider-Man has gone to see Daredevil at the request of Reed Richards, whose technology created the coveted drive.

All of this sounds very complicated, but it’s not. The story is very straightforward and while Rucka and Waid bounce back and forth between the past and present in the beginning of the issue, the flow is never lost. Because the issue opens in medias res, the writers have to catch readers up, but this is done in the first few pages. By doing this, Waid and Rucka have a much more engaging story, and Spidey’s fight with a group of ninjas is both awesome and hilarious. The comic is full of the same Spider-Man humor as that found in a Zeb Wells or Dan Slott story.

But the best part of the issue is Spider-Man’s insistence that no one dies while the three men work together. Because Daredevil believes in the same code, it looks like, at least for now, Frank will have to play along. I don’t trust, however, that while Frank has agreed, he will follow this rule. This may be more of Rucka coming through than Waid, but Frank Castle’s intensity is palpable, and it makes him the most dangerous character in the book. The second half of the issue is spent on character development and convincing readers of the validity of the team-up. Each character is perfectly represented, and this is a showcase of Waid and Rucka’s talent. The individuality of each hero is not lost, and tonally, each feels as honest as if he were in his own series. By the end (and even before), I was completely sold on this grouping.

Marco Checchetto, the current Punisher artist, takes the reins in this issue. His angular, rough edged designs are immediately noticeable, but not in a bad way. With a style pulled straight from the pages of Punisher, Checchetto fills the pages with a dark, misty look. I enjoyed his shading and inking as much of the issue relies on the tone of the moment. Very few panels lack copious detail, particularly those involving ninjas (and there are a lot of ninjas in this issue). Matt Hollingsworth’s colors are muted but appropriate as they help with the Punisher’s violence.

The choice to have Mark Waid and Greg Rucka work together on Avenging Spider-Man was a brilliant one. Both men are adept writers in their own series, as well as in this one. Waid, whose Daredevil series is one of the best on the market, has written what I think are some of the best Spider-Man comics ever, and Rucka’s work in Punisher is not to be missed. Despite the heavy tone of the conflict, and the Punisher’s penchant for killing people, Waid and Rucka keep the story light. In a crossover that I would think all fans are looking forward to, the first part sets the groundwork for a series that is fun and exciting.


The Shade #7

Written by James Robinson

Art by Javier Pulido and Hilary Sycamore

Lettering by Todd Klein

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

This book looks beautiful, but this issue of The Shade is becoming more and more of an acquired taste. While vampiric guest star La Sangre is still a treat to read — to the point where she even overshadows her aristocratic mentor — there is a disconnect with the writing that even some strong artwork can't fully overcome.

Javier Pulido is one of those artists like Marcos Martin that seem to draw from this Tim Sale school of art, with sharper lines evoking huge amounts of moodiness and atmosphere. I've said before that he was a coup for DC to acquire (and that's no surprise, considering the company's resident Artist Whisperer, Wil Moss, is editing the book), and fight sequences featuring La Sangre bouncing and flipping around the room is proof of Pulido's power. But that said, something is off on this artist's game, as well — easy home runs, like the Shade dodging a blade that's aiming for his head, turns into a lackluster splash page crouch, and there's a fight sequence that relies far too heavily on silhouettes rather than fully-rendered figures. These compositional missteps also make Pulido's sketchier style stand out more, with Le Sangre's snarl seeming suddenly crowded with extraneous lines.

But armed with Hilary Sycamore's bold reds and soulful blues and purples, the art is imperfect but still enthralling. Unfortunately, the writing does get in the way. James Robinson floods the pages with word balloons, which comes off as particularly grating when La Sangre and her archnemesis the Inquisitor trade monologues during the middle of a high-flying fight sequence. Yet La Sangre is an active heroine, which is more than the Shade himself. He isn't much to root for this issue, as he enters the scene, destroys the villains with a wave of his hand, and gives a whiff of angst over his late wife (who hadn't gotten much, if any, air time last issue, either). It's a lot of talk that, sadly, says nothing, but Robinson does make up for it a bit at the end, as the Shade gives a surprising moment of tenderness to a woman who has always seen herself as his daughter.

While he ends the issue on a really human note, Robinson overwrites the heck out of this issue of The Shade, and Javier Pulido himself has some surprising missteps here. The end result is still one of the better offerings at DC, but you can't help but see where it could have been even better. But this is definitely a sophomore slump — The Shade is but a shadow of what it was last round.


New Avengers #24

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by Mike Deodato, Will Conrad, Rain Beredo

Lettering by VC’s Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jake Baumgart

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

It’s Avengers vs. X-Men season and with The New Avengers #24 Marvel fans get their first tie-in issue. Writer Brian Michael Bendis and artists Mike Deodato, Will Conrad and Rain Beredo provide a nice panoramic view of the Avengers side of things before the optic blast heard around the globe. Although the issue did feel slowed by the long exchange between Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, issue #24 adds texture to this summer’s big Marvel Event.

There is definitely still some shuffling of the characters being done in The New Avengers this month. Although it didn’t feel heavy handed, Bendis still had some pieces that needed to be put into place with Storm leaving the mansion with one word and, again, going to Wolverine and addressing his motives. There is the continuation of the Cage/Jones baby drama that feels sort of out of place if the reader is only reading the book for the event tie-in but works for the long form of the series. The Cage/Jones story line can feel like it’s slowing down an issue that, from the cover and hype, maybe should have had more action to show.

This isn’t to say that it isn’t handled well — exactly the opposite. Bendis is able to really capture a man who isn’t used to to being so emotionally vulnerable and the desperation to keep his loved ones near and be an Avenger. It really brings Luke Cage deeper into the fight and makes the last few pages extra potent and works Cage into the event nicely by showing where he is mentally. Bendis also nails the fun exchange between Spider-Man and Wolverine at the beginning with Spidey asking the question on a lot of reader’s minds: “What rational person on this or any other planet would let children anywhere near you?”

At first glance, the pencils by Deodato and Conrad aren’t going to catch the reader’s attention. The two artists seem to work well together and there doesn’t seem to be a separation of style between the two that could create a water-and-oil effect. However, everything that isn’t a character in the book falls victim to the uncanny valley effect. There is something too perfect about the computer-generated Avengers Mansion in the background or the table setting during the meeting. It doesn’t specify in the credits which artist worked on what aspect of the pages, it might even be contributions from Beredo or Caramagna. Whoever is providing these details might not be the best fit for the book. The first few pages of the book sees some of the Avengers sitting around the big wooden table and it looks over run with computer rendering. The figures at the table look resized and focused to an eerie perfection and placed around the table like a collage. It almost makes the book look like an addition to an action figure package or maybe something in a give away with the sort of digital perfect in the pages. There is definitely some charm lost with this approach.

Granted, this isn’t a problem during the long exchange between Luke and Jessica. The artists focus on the facial acting and expressive nuances which is definitely their strong suit. The figures are great and this goes for the expressiveness of a couple, not really arguing, but at an in pass of what to do about the safety of their child. This goes for the panel work as well. The artists are able to gently guide the reader through their conversation without any bumps or missteps that take the reader out of the moment. There isn’t anything truly spectacular about the teams approach to the layouts, but sometimes doing a good job is better than trying to do an amazing job and botching it altogether. It’s too bad there wasn’t more action — or, really, any at all — in the issue because the strengths of this team might be better suited for that over an issue with a lot of Avengers sitting around a lot of tables.

Don’t be surprised if readers get a few more issues of primer leading up to any actual action in the event proper but Bendis has really stacked a formidable team of Avengers that should have the X-Men sweating it on Utopia. However, the team on this book should be able to provide something interesting from the trenches and give a better insight to the Avengers' side of things.


Journey Into Mystery #636

Written by Kieron Gillen

Art by Richard Elson and Ifansyah Noor

Letters by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

I've got to hand it to Kieron Gillen. Very few writers can take a story like the now-completed "Terrorism Myth" that relies on almost too many high concepts to count, and make it as engaging, approachable, and downright entertaining as this arc of Journey Into Mystery has been. It would be easy to be turned off by the insular mythology that Gillen's bred surrounding the concept of "fear," and "fear clots," "fear energy," and "fear lords." It's the kind of thing that hinges on a conceit of disbelief so strongly that if you aren't sold on it in the first few pages, it's likely to devolve into a kind of strange, incestuous and impenetrable morass of dialogue that attempts to explain itself more than tell its own story. Luckily, "The Terrorism Myth" and it's finale, Journey Into Mystery #636 do the exact opposite, completely bypassing the veil of complex mythology, and attacking the subject matter with a lightness and urgency that leave the reader with no time or care to ask questions. The characters treat the concept of "fear clots" with a sense of hyperbole and parody that's strong enough to make Peter David blush, as if to reassure the reader that the macguffin at the heart of the story really isn't the point, and to just enjoy the ride.

Gillen's sense of humor is prevalent throughout this issue, starting on page one with the ingredients of Nightmare's forged Fear Crown, and delivering consistent chuckles, if not out and out belly laughs through the final page, where Leah attempts to make amends with the mortal man she wronged early in the arc. There's a brilliance to the humor as well, as this issue serves as a kind of punch line to the preceding pieces of the story, offering a wink-wink-nudge-nudge type of tongue in cheek denouement to a tale so rife with grandiose, self-important villains, and self-serious, unabashedly bizarre heroes that if you weren't laughing by the end, well, you might not have made it to the end at all. Aside from that, Gillen continues to paint young Loki as a kind of supernatural Dennis the Menace, who lives to beset the universe with mischief, confident that his own cleverness will serve to set everything aright at the end. Loki has quickly become one of the Marvel Universe's most enjoyable characters to read, and part of me aches for a Gillen-penned crossover with Spider-Man because, you know, jokes.

Artist Richard Elson really nails the tone throughout the issue, capturing the essence of each character without betraying their core to the issue's jokes, while still deftly handling the moments where a little bit of tongue planted firmly in the cheek is a necessity. Of particular note are the two-page board game that illustrates the chase for the Fear Crown and the opening scene, in which a positively demented looking Nightmare forges said artifact. Also, as much as his melodramatic appearance becomes something of a running joke in this story, Elson's take on Daimon Hellstrom as a gruff, almost stoic foil to Loki's sense of mischief really works, and often serves to sell Loki's animated, expressive facial features.

Perhaps incredibly, thanks to the continuity heavy subject matter and highly insular proprietary mythology, "The Terrorism Myth" is exactly the kind of comic book that I want to hand to some of my friends who don't read comics, or who haven't in a long time. And it's not because it reinvents a long overused character, or reboots a heavily inundated continuity, but because even without knowledge of the cosmic workings of the metaphysical aspects of the Marvel universe, it's relatable, and funny, and exciting. Kieron Gillen and Richard Elson have crafted something great with this story — that rare bird that can appeal to both longtime readers and those who are just getting started, simply by virtue of the talent involved, and attention to detail, and the ability to tell a story without forcing it to be more important that it probably should. Journey Into Mystery is a must-read.


Severed HC

Written by Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft

Art by Attila Futaki and Greg Guilhaumond, with Bill Nelson

Letters by Fonografiks

Published by Image Comics

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“Appearances can be deceiving.” In the life of Jack Garron, the phrase is all too real, as we learn in this collection of the seven-issue series Severed by popular American Vampire and Batman writer Scott Snyder, along with Scott Tuft and Attila Futaki. Settled into life as a grandfather and putting his past behind him, Garron is shocked into a flashback to the true story of how he lost his arm in this gritty, Stephen King-like horror story that should please anyone who is a horror fan like me.

I’ve quickly become a fan of Snyder, who has the ability to create horror settings that begin by looking perfectly normal and then spiral into madness. He and Tuft's story is no exception to the rule, as we open on a happy set of grandparents only to devolve into a nightmare that every parent warns their child about whenever they long to stray from home. The transition is a slow burn, leading the reader down a path that looks paved with promise, only to see it stolen away from young Jack piece by piece until it seems that all hope is lost. I was further impressed because while we know that Jack survives, we don’t know how he loses that arm, allowing for multiple fake-outs that start as early as the first issue in this collection. The co-writers keep the reader interested in what is going to happen to Jack when he inevitably meets the boogey man introduced in an aside at the same time Jack begins his journey while keeping that confrontation delayed just long enough to deliver a punch to the reader’s senses.

As both Scotts mention in the afterward, this story is very much about traveling and the dangers of setting off on your own. While there aren’t supernatural cannibals roaming the roads, the dangers faced by Jack and his companion Sam are based on real ideas, another key feature of horror. The best horror stems from reasonable fears written to their extreme, and that’s exactly what Severed does for its entire run. Even the monster of the piece isn’t so far out of the ordinary, when you consider people like Jeffrey Dahlmer or other serial killers do exist. The tactics used by Jack’s opponent are the same schemes we read about in true crime books, and Jack’s desire to find his father and the lengths he goes to do so is very believable. I’m not sure which of the co-writers is responsible for hewing closely to what could be a true story or if it was a mutual idea, but the strategy works perfectly here.

Giving Severed exactly the look it needs are Futaki and Guihaumond, on art and colors respectively. Futaki captures the feel of Middle America in the time just before World War I, using an extensive set of photos to understand just what Jack’s environment would look like. (Some of these photos are shared in the bonus material.) The result is a book that resembles a set of painted old photographs, but without the posing or artificial positioning that I cannot stand when I’m practically able to tell exactly what photo an artist used to create the image. The looks on the faces of Jack, the monster, his mother, and others feel extremely natural as they’re caught in the middle of whatever actions Snyder and Tuft ask Futaki to draw.

It also helps that despite using a style reminiscent of photo-realism, Futaki keeps his camera angles varied from page to page, using long shots, medium views and close-ups, depending on what the story calls for. There are even times when characters are moved out of the center of the panel frame to heighten the effect. Add on a color palate from Guihaumond that is generally a bit grainy (giving a sense of age) but able to create sharp contrasts (such as Sam’s red hair or the splashing of blood) and you have a comic that looks as good as it reads.

Severed is not only a great comic, it’s a great horror story, able to match up with anything that King or any other master of the genre in prose form has created. Just don’t read it before you plan a long road trip, or you might be in for a long night.


Ultimate Comics X-Men #10

Written by Nick Spencer

Art Paco Medina, Juan Vlasco, Christophor Sotomayor and Marte Gracia

Lettering by Joe Sabino

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

For a series that started out strong, Ultimate Comics X-Men had slowed down a bit in recent issues. Once the mutants were imprisoned in Camp Angel, a mutant detention center, the story’s rapid pace become a plodding step. But in the wake of the last issue’s revelations — where all the mutants found out they were the product of a government experiment — this issue kicks off with action, and tells a story of liberation and its costs.

The book opens with a revolt at Camp Angel, and it only takes Nick Spencer eight pages to tell of its downfall. Spencer uses narration in an attempt to add feeling — it works, but this isn’t the goal of the issue. He turns his attention to Stacy X, a mutant who sees the opportunity for her fellow mutants to exact revenge for their incarceration. Ororo Munroe, a.k.a. Storm, on the other hand, tries to play the mediator and do what Charles Xavier would have wanted, to work with humans cooperatively. In an action that reminiscent of The Dark Knight, they use a voting system to decide what to do with their prisoners. I found this part of the comic a bit silly, though, as it relies too much on leading readers to the climax involving Peter Rasputin, a.k.a. Colossus. His decision isn’t out of character for his Ultimate iteration, especially considering the situation, but it’s definitely shocking. And while I enjoyed the climax of the issue, I didn’t enjoy how Spencer led up to it. That said, the final three pages are awesome.

My one major complaint is the pacing of the comic, but this has nothing to do with Nick Spencer. Marvel tosses splash page previews in two of the most inconvenient places, and at a moment where the emotion is at its highest and the story reaching its apex, the action is broken up twice by adverts for future series. I understand Marvel wants people interested in their projects, but the poor placement destroys the impact of the moment.

While I enjoyed the story, I enjoyed Paco Medina’s art more. His characters look sleek, powerful and pissed. Medina’s ability to depict facial expressions really sells the emotion of this book. Stacy X’s rallying speech to her fellow mutants is a showcase to this, as is Storm’s call for order. Chris Sotomayor and Marte Gracia’s do a brilliant job with the colors, especially towards the end of the story when they use background colors as filler for emotions. The tone of the book goes from hopeful to terrifying, and it’s done using a red color scheme that slowly fills the pages until the violent ending. Along with Juan Vlasco’s inks, every panel looks polished and even.

Over the course of the series, Storm has become central to the story. She’s taken the role that Scott Summers would have taken if he were still alive, that of a peacemaker rather than a tyrant. This is the one aspect of the series I’ve most enjoyed. Spencer isn’t afraid to take chances with the story or the characters, and that in particular is what makes Ultimate Comics X-Men a great read. It’s a story we’ve all seen before: the liberated have to make a choice to to use their freedom for good, or to punish those who imprisoned them. But when the characters are filled with such humanity, it makes watching their struggle difficult. The final page of the issue is a harbinger of bad things, and I can’t wait to see what Nick Spencer is going to do.


The Bolt Strikes #1

Written by Samir Barrett and Dave Wheeler

Art by Samir Barrett

Published by Mind Wave Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Samir Barrett. Remember the name. You'll probably be hearing about him later.

I came across Barrett's work this weekend, with the release of his new comic The Bolt Strikes, and let me tell you, it was one of the highlights of C2E2 for me. Think of Percy Jackson meets Spider-Man spandex — or, even if you're feeling uncharitable, a remix of Static Shock that still reads stronger than the actual DC title — and you've got this title in a nutshell. Whatever you decide of this Greek myth-infused superhero origin, this isn't just a breezy read and a fun introduction to a promising protagonist, but it's also a showcase for a top-notch comic book artist.

Barrett teams up with co-writer Dave Wheeler to introduce Marcus, a teenage Everyman that'll remind you more than a little of Virgil Hawkins or Peter Parker. Yet first impressions matter, and a silent first page showing Marcus being struck by Zeus's lightning is about as powerful and effective an opener that I've seen anywhere, from indies to the Big Two. Wheeler and Barrett aren't without their rough edges in their dialogue, but the overall direction and tone of The Bolt Strikes is right on the money. Marcus, at his heart, is a really likable kid, so you feel for him when he hangs out with his crush, and you chuckle when he says his post-hospital plans are simply to "eat everything!" The rest of Marcus's supporting cast is pretty broadly characterized thus far, but in a way that reminds me a bit of an animated series — the Mind Wave crew are introducing a whole new world, and these archetypes do provide for accessible, smooth storytelling.

Well, maybe I misspoke. The accessible, smooth storytelling is really all on Barrett's artwork, which hits way above its indie-level weight class. You can tell Barrett has experience as a storyboard artist, seeing how each panel flows into the next — the aforementioned lightning strike panel is enough to hook a reader in — but his real gift is his expressiveness. From Marcus's crush Lucy biting her lip when she sees him to the sardonic look Marcus gives his friend Sam, there's a real life behind the eyes of these drawn figures, and it's hard not to be taken in by them. Barrett's inking is particularly fluid, and only adds to the professional feel of this product. I've heard it likened to Invincible over at Image, but to me, Barrett's smooth lines remind me of an animated feature that has echoes of Kim Possible or even Static Shock.

With all this character-building, to be honest, the main weakness of The Bolt Strikes is that the superheroics seem, well, almost like an afterthought. Seeing Marcus struggle with his abilities is already compelling enough, so him meeting up with Hephaestus, getting a suit of armor and — after the prerequisite supervillain ambush — eventually deciding to become Hephaestus's protege comes off as a little rushed and a little too convenient. There are also some bits of exposition that stick out in the dialogue, and occasionally the size and direction of the word balloons draw attention to themselves.

Still, hiccups are to be expected when you're self-publishing at this scale, and it's to the creators' credit that The Bolt Strikes #1 makes relatively few. The high concept for this book is simple yet extremely marketable, and it's truly heartening to see the execution for this all-ages book reach that potential. I see great things happening for Samir Barrett in particular, as he's truly got the artistic goods. As far as introductions go, this hits the mark, introducing a brand-new world and compelling characters. I already can't wait for the next installment of the Bolt — I want to see if lightning truly can strike twice. 

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