Greetings, 'Rama readers! Enjoy your holidays? Well, while everyone was kicking it over the weekend, Best Shots was hard at work, delivering not just reviews of last week's big releases, but a pair of books that come out tomorrow! So enjoy this joint Best Shots/Best Shots Advanced column, as Rob McMonigal kicks us off with the all-new, all-different Justice League Dark...


Justice League Dark #9

Written by Jeff Lemire

Art by Mikel Janin and Ulises Arreola

Lettering by Rob Leigh

Published by DC Comics

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Even John Constantine can be bought at the right price — in this case, a chance to raid a treasure trove of magical objects. The trouble is going to be convincing a group of other magic users to risk their lives to help him get it. Led by Vertigo's master magical manipulator, new writer Jeff Lemire delivers the Justice League Dark that I wanted from the beginning in this opening to a story arc that looks extremely promising.

When The New 52 was introduced, Justice League Dark was one of the titles I was most looking forward to reading. Unfortunately, writer Peter Milligan's opening story was not at all what I wanted from this title, and I dropped it after two issues. For me at least, Jeff Lemire's new approach gets it right. The Dark team is a group of people who, unlike the Justice League, do not trust each other at all, yet because of their peculiar talents must work together in order to solve crises that would leave Superman as powerless as Jimmy Olsen. It looks like Lemire wants the book to be action-packed, steeped in DC/Vertigo lore (as complicated at that can be given The New 52) with the team always be ready for someone to betray the team for selfish ends. If he plays his cards right, he'll even wait as long as possible before the traitor is unofficial team leader Constantine, because he'll be the obvious suspect every time out.

The issue itself is almost note-perfect. We open with Constantine being his most acidic, managing despite the odds to stay one step ahead of his foe — Felix Faust. He looks a little worse for the wear here, and is a bit easily dispatched (for now), but I love that Lemire's first arc pulled out a major-league villain from the League's pantheon. After explaining how Constantine manages to get a team together, we move to the issue's big reveal — Faust has found a way to one of the most powerful objects in the old Vertigo universe.

In addition to having a great plot and a willingness to work within DC/Vertigo's magical lore, Lemire's dialogue shows he's taken the time to read these characters' past adventures. Deadman is irreverent and enjoying these crazy adventures and Zatanna will do anything for a link to her father. But the best voice of all is Constantine himself, who sounds and acts like he just stepped out of his long-running Vertigo adventures. Lemire has Constantine at his best, switching seamlessly from sarcasm to seriousness as the situation calls for it. Because he always perceives himself in control, Lemire is even able to ground new readers in the other characters without it feeling like an information dump — of course Constantine would pick his team apart and think about what makes them tick.

Mikel Janin remains the artist on this series, but I came away from this issue far more impressed with his style because now he has a quality story to work with. Janin's pencils are finely detailed, but the lines don't feel overworked in the character design. The heroes look extremely realistic, as though you were actually in a room with the people on the panel. However, it's not the photo-realistic style of someone such as Bryan Hitch, either. There's an accuracy by Janin that places the book in a visual category that I don't really remember seeing before. It's not painted, but it also doesn't feel drawn, either.

Janin not only has a high quality of artwork, but he also understands how to create innovative panel layouts. The camera angles are all over, multiple pages feature border lines acting almost at random, keeping the action tightly bound within their restraints, and at no time is he locked in to any particular type of page design. Aided by great colors from Ulises Arreola that make the action pop out at the reader, Justice League Dark might just be the best looking book I'm reading from DC right now.

If you passed on Justice League Dark initially, give it another chance. Lemire and company have it solidly on track to be one of DC's best books going forward. It's a great time to jump on and enjoy the darker side of the new DC Universe.


Fantastic Four #606

Written by Jonathan Hickman

Art by Ron Garney and Jason Keith

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comic

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The Fantastic Four have always been known as explorers, but this issue, they're boldly going where a ton of superheroes have already been before. Even with some sharp artwork by Ron Garney and Jason Keith, Jonathan Hickman's story is a little too predictable to make this comic worth the price of admission.

Just based on the cover alone, you can tell what "alien" terrain the FF are traveling across this issue, and once you figure that out, the whys and wherefores are pretty obvious. Jonathan Hickman, in this regard, is also a victim of editorial miscommunication, as Jason Aaron covered this same territory — albeit with more aplomb — just a few months ago in Wolverine and the X-Men. The thing that would have differentiated this comic from Aaron's is also Hickman's weak spot: characterization. Aside from one great line from the Thing, the FF are mostly just stoic, fighting against indigenous protectors with only the Human Torch to provide any sort of complication.

Thankfully, the book is still pretty to look at. Ron Garney knows how to really make his characters look badass, pulling that sketchy Kubert vibe and showing the steel behind the eyes of the Thing or the Invisible Woman. That's saying a lot, considering the constraints of this comic, which called for a lot of distance shots, as well as the entire team operating in bulky, uniform space-suits. Colorist Jason Keith ha a little bit of a harder sell, as the color palette he has to work with is limited largely to reds and whites, just by virtue of the story. Still, seeing the Four is a dynamic experience, and makes me wish Garney and Keith were on this book full-time.

If Fantastic Four #606 were a back-up story, it would be a great done-in-one entrée to Marvel's first family of imaginauts. The problem is, this is $2.99, for something we've already seen before (and seen done better). It should never feel business as usual with the Fantastic Four, but this issue feels as routine as it gets.


Batman Incorporated #1

Written by Grant Morrison

Art by Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn

Lettering by Patrick Brosseau

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

In medias res storytelling can be gimmicky, but when done correctly, it is a great way to introduce a conflict. Batman Incorporated starts with a very cryptic opening that is definitely relevant by the final page of the issue, and as with any Grant Morrison comic, the story is layered with detail and characterization that both illustrate just how impressive a writer Grant Morrison can be.

After the prologue, the comic kicks right into the action with some pretty violent and fun moments. In fact, every scene involving Batman and Robin is an action scene; they're in perpetual motion throughout the comic. And while the comic is pretty dark, Morrison throws in a few fun moments to lighten the mood, like Damian adopting and naming a cow “Bat-Cow,” and his speech to a gang of mutants whom he then severely beats. Morrison also reintroduces the real nemesis of the piece, the character known as Leviathan. These moments are seamlessly spliced throughout the comic, and they develop a villain that is scary and demented. The addition of Man-Bat warriors is also fun to see.

Additionally, Morrison is assuming his readers have an understanding of the latest happenings in the Batman world, as there are references to Damian's past, and his recent encounters with Nobody in Batman and Robin and The Spook in Batman. The comic relies on this history to tell the story and readers without a firm background in the Batman mythos may be at a loss. That's not a negative, and in fact I appreciated that things that have occurred in the past are referenced here. The interconnections between the stories is a payoff for longtime readers.

Chris Burnham's illustrations are reminiscent of Frank Quietly's, and this makes a comforting connection for readers. I found Batman Incorporated an easier read than some of Morrison's other works, partially due to my familiarity with the art style. Burnham's Damian is the best part of the issue. For a little kid, he can be pugnacious and arrogant, and Burham perfectly displays this through Damian's facial features. My favorite page, however, is one that shows Batman and Robin swinging through the buildings of Gotham, and Burham uses the sides of buildings and rotting billboards to create natural panels that move the story first across and then down the page. It's truly impressive.

Much of the storytelling occurs in the minutiae of the comic and the panel construction is the visual bread and butter of the issue. Like J.H. Williams' art in Batwoman, Burham utilizes some very unique and original art stylings (like transit maps and panels within panels) to fluidly move the story along. The panel construction alone is gorgeous. And Grant Morrison proves that he's still a master storyteller in the comic world. While the "Incorporated" part of the title has yet to be fully introduced, laying the ground work with a story that focuses mostly on Batman and Robin is a great way to bring in readers, introduce the conflict, and set up the future of the series. If this first issue is any indicator, we're all in for a treat.


Aquaman #9

Written by Geoff Johns

Art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Oclair Albert, Andy Lanning, and Rod Reis

Lettering by Nick J. Napolitano

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Despite a few missteps in earlier issues, it feels like Geoff Johns has really found his purpose in the last few installments of Aquaman. The current arc, entitled "The Others," is an example of Johns' ability to create rich history for his characters, write some exciting action scenes, and give his characters cool moments to display their abilities. While the story starts out slow, it quickly finds its pacing and in the end, becomes one of the best issues of the new series.

Initially, I wasn't too impressed with the comic. The opening page is six panels long, but could have been condensed into three. The first few pages are like this; Johns is attempting to be methodical in his storytelling, but these panels feel wasted as they don't have a lot to do with the rest of the issue. Prisoner of War, the hero introduced in issue #7, has the ability to call upon the fallen soldiers of his unit. So if he needs a medic, he can summon a medic to heal him. I think he's calling the families of these dead soldiers in these opening moments, but it's hard to tell. Johns leaves it up to the reader to infer.

But when Black Manta shows up, things get interesting and the rest of the issue a mixture of action and story split between Prisoner of War trying to get away from Manta, Arthur and Ya'wara fighting with rebels after finding the body of the Seer in the Amazon, and Mera's conversation with Dr. Shin, the man who has a mysterious connection to Aquaman. A lot of intriguing set-up occurs here, and readers are given a lot of answers to Arthur's past. The revelation at the end of the issue is a great piece of canon alteration, and one that adds an additional layer to the long history between Aquaman and Black Manta.

As a fan of Ivan Reis, I always enjoy his art, but this issue in particular had some pretty impressive moments. When Prisoner of War uses his powers, the image of soldiers swirl around him like a mist. Combined with Rod Reis' colors and the inks of Joe Prado, Oclair Albert and Andy Lanning, the ghostly designs are eerie and impressive.

But beyond that, Ivan Reis' Black Manta is simply awesome to look at. Black Manta's helmet has to be one of the silliest designs on any character, but Reis makes it look ferocious and imposing. In fact the entire outfit makes Black Manta a formidable opponent. The final page of the issue in particular — with Arthur standing before Manta in the rain and lightning bolts illuminating the sky — makes for a great cliff hanger to the issue, and a cool set-up for the next.

Once Johns got the introductory stories out of the way, I feel like the issues have really found their feet. Johns' writing is stronger now, and after developing the characters, he's free to create his own mythos. If his work on Flash and Green Lantern are any indication, he's setting up Aquaman to have its own event somewhere in the future, and if his past work can be used as a precursor, we're in for an epic story.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation #1

Written by Scott Tipton, David Tipton, and Tony Lee

Art by J.K. Woodward

Lettering by Shawn Lee and Robbie Robbins

Published by IDW Publishing

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Both the TARDIS and the Enterprise have a nose for trouble in the Universe, but this time they may be in up over their heads. It's assimilation and elimination on a grand scale as the Borg team up with the Cybermen to create a menace that has this Star Trek and Doctor Who fan almost as excited as for a season premiere. This book is right in my wheelhouse, delivering a first issue that did not disappoint in any way, shape or form, even if neither villain is my favorite in their respective worlds.

Though the promotional image for the series showed Matt Smith (who plays the 11th Doctor featured in this issue) sitting in the Captain's chair, flanked by his current companions, Amy and Rory Pond, this issue finds a far more clever way to bring the two sets of travelers together. Instead of the obvious premise of the perpetually unpredictable TARDIS showing up on the Enterprise, the Tiptons and Lee find a very different, but perfectly in-character method for both shows that ends up setting the stage for what is sure to be an enjoyable meeting between the Doctor and the Next Gen crew in the second issue.

Before we get to that point, however, the crossover wastes no time in bringing on the bad guys. We already knew that the villains would be the Borg and the Cybermen, so there was no need to tease or hint at their presence. We open with an unusually aggressive Borg attack on Delta IV, allowing readers who may be more familiar with Who than Trek to see the diversity and military organization of that universe. Readers quickly see the scale of the attack is overwhelming, and the scene ends with the dramatic reveal that some of the Borg have a distinctly different look to them, one that Who fans will instantly recognize.

It's going to be tough sledding for our heroes, but they're no stranger to bad odds, as the introduction of the Doctor, Rory, and Amy to Trek fans shows. Set in Egypt and drawing heavily from the plots of the 11th Doctor's run, we get a strong sense of Smith's irreverence, unpredictability, and unwavering determination. I have no idea if the alien we see here will factor into the story later, but I thought this mini-adventure grounds anyone potentially new to Doctor Who in just about everything they need to know.

Both of these halves, while currently unrelated, blend together quite well under the artwork of J.K. Woodward, whose style makes the entire comic appear painted, not unlike the various projects that Alex Ross has worked on for Marvel and DC, such as Earth X or Justice. I was really surprised to see work like this in a crossover book, but the more I read over the pages, the more I liked the idea. By using the painted style, the vastly different worlds of Star Trek and Doctor Who blend together, not unlike the way various paint shades blend together when they are applied to a canvas. It might have been a bit more jarring to see this in a more traditional cartoon style.  I also like that the shade of paint used for the Andorian we see in the opening matches the original series coloring perfectly, something I don't think traditional comic book color could manage.

In addition, Woodward's likenesses, at least the ones we've seen so far, are able to evoke the familiar actors we know from the television shows upon which the comic is based without having to be slavish recreations. (It also saves us from the horrible fate of some of the old Star Trek comics, where the artists didn't bother to even try to get the likenesses correct.) The artwork is impressive and a big selling point for the comic.

Star Trek: Next Generation/Doctor Who #1 looks like it's going to be everything a fan of both shows would want — big action, a villain so powerful neither can defeat it alone, and the spot-on portrayals of characters we know and love. Fans of either show really need to pick this one up when they do their shopping tomorrow.


Grim Leaper #1

Written by Kurtis Wiebe

Art and Lettering by Aluisio C. Santos

Published by Image Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

What's the worst part about dying? For the main character of Kurtis Wiebe and Aluisio C. Santos's Grim Leaper, it's getting back up to do it all over again. With an eclectic art style and a little bit of heart behind this morbid high concept, this is an introduction that's both low-key and deeply intriguing.

Considering the name of this book sounds more like the title for Batroc MAX, Wiebe's biggest strength — and his greatest weakness — is that he's able to escape the expectations and guesswork that most experienced readers will throw at him. His protagonist, Lou, has a predicament — namely, being tossed from body to body, just before they get knocked off, Final Destination-style — that's unique enough to carry the first issue, and when we see the big twist on his days of fear and loneliness, he even gets to be a little bit human, too. Wiebe doesn't really deliver much in the way of backstory here, and that's okay — for now, he's tugging a bit at your heart-strings before he rips them entirely out of your chest.

That said, I don't think this book would be nearly as memorable without Aluisio C. Santos's contributions. Artist, colorist, letterer, Santos is a one-man band here, with his cartoony figured and electrifying colors making this world seem alien and frightening, but not in a way that's meant to scare off the reader. It's also tremendously expressive — the look on a woman's face when Lou hits on her says just as much as a guy getting his head torn off with a runaway hubcap. Those death scenes are gnarly.

But the unpredictability of Wiebe's story — the fact that people might not know how to categorize it, especially with its title — does provide a stumbling block. While I think the end of the chapter provides a really refreshing tonal twist, starting off with Lou's misanthropic streak feels a little played-out already, with Wiebe relying just a hair too much on the violence and loneliness to make us care. Santos's art will also be an acquired taste for some, even as I see it as an almost Mahfood-esque heightened reality.

Even with a slow-burning start, the originality and potential behind Grim Leaper should not be ignored. There's a surprising tenderness underneath all the carnage that I think will make this book transcend expectations and really bring together some very disparate genres. Death might have lost its sting elsewhere in the comics industry, but Grim Leaper shows that there's still much to explore in the hereafter.

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