Best Shots Extra: AVENGERS VS. X-MEN, EARTH 2, More


Avengers vs. X-Men #5

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by John Romita, Jr., Scott Hanna and Laura Martin

Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

So that just happened.

For the sake of spoilers, I can't go into too much detail onto what that "that" might be. But there is a twist to Avengers vs. X-Men... a twist, unfortunately, that's probably going to roll more than a few eyes. This comic doesn't really impress or insult, but mainly just exists, continuing the fisticuffs of the past few months without much in the way of characterization or development.

Well, perhaps that's not accurate. Things certainly do feel different from the (comparatively) easy-going previous installment — Matt Fraction cranks the desperation dial to 11 immediately, and while it's a little abrupt and inorganic, it does make readers perk up a bit. As the Avengers and the X-Men square off on the moon over Hope, the Mutant Messiah and the next host of the Phoenix, the gloves come off in a big way — claws, optic blasts, gamma-irradiated fists, these heroes are out for blood. The build-up wasn't quite there, but Fraction does make the animosity seem real.

Artist John Romita Jr., meanwhile, seems surprisingly reserved for a book with this much fighting. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of double-page spreads and sequences to this book, but even with an old-school opening image of each team running at one another, there isn't much that stands out here. He does, however, sell the Defcon 1 vibe that Fraction is putting out in this book, as Hope is genuinely freaking out over the incoming Phoenix Force. Romita's char-broiled Wolverine also looks Miller-esque in how beat-up he looks, as does Cyclops when he truly lashes out. That said, a lot of the other fight beats feel a bit static, with the issue overall feeling surprisingly talky, even with all of the fighting.

That said... the twist. While it is a surprise in the "well, I didn't expect to see that" sense, neither Fraction nor Romita can really sell it properly. It sounds goofy on paper, but looks even worse. The bigger problem with the twist is that it more or less creates a clear moral victor in the Marvel Universe. Considering this book is called Avengers vs. X-Men, it would have been nice to have been able to root for both teams, but by the end, one of them is definitely veering into super-villain territory.

The easy part was getting all these heavy-hitters together. And considering how it's assured that this crossover will set the tone of the Marvel Universe for a while, that might be enough for sheer sales. But Avengers vs. X-Men is lacking that drive and direction that, say, Civil War possessed, with the character interactions being just the same handful of qualities being rehashed again and again. With the plot taking a turn for the ludicrous, this issue is a collection of Marvel's finest not swinging for the fences, but simply knocking a bunt.


Earth 2 #2

Written by James Robinson

Art by Nicola Scott, Trevor Scott, Alex Sinclair and Pete Pantazis

Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The second installment of Earth 2 might not be the slam-dunk the first issue was, but like the Scarlet Speedster on the cover, it does pick up speed after a slow start. Without the instantly recognizable Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman to help anchor the book, James Robinson and Nicola Scott are exploring uncharted territory — a whole new Earth, if you will.

The strength of James Robinson's writing in this issue is more about pacing and plotting than the execution. For example, he starts off the issue with a foreboding introduction, but when you're looping in DC's ill-received Mr. Terrific series in the first page, that also is probably going to hamper new readers. Similarly, when Jay Garrick is visited by the Roman god Mercury, the intent is there — Jay's got to get super-speed and the call to action somehow — but at the same time, the dialogue to get there is super-rough, shoehorning exposition with a fairly stilted rhythm.

But as the story progresses, thing get a lot smoother. Robinson wisely spends time showing us the thrill of super-speed, as Jay stretches his legs for the first time. Meanwhile, Alan Scott's big moment — kissing his boyfriend — isn't nearly as OMG-explosive as some parents' groups would like you to believe, and is played off pretty nonchalantly in the context of the story. Which is exactly as it should be.

Artist Nicola Scott actually follows Robinson's lead on this book. When I first saw her portrayal of Jay Garrick's new costume, my initial thought was... ick. The design doesn't really do well for static standing pin-ups, but as time progresses, Scott seems to get more comfortable with the costume, which looks much better in motion than it does standing still. Scott does great work with a hidden villain, whose intentions become clear the moment he slips on a black glove, and she actually lends a degree of credibility to Alan's relationship with Sam, where the dialogue still comes off a little rough.

That said, Robinson and Scott are creating a new universe, one that's already far more successful than the Tangent or Stan Lee relaunches of years past. There are some rough edges to this book, some that editors Pat McCallum and Sean Mackiewicz would have ironed out at the scripting stage, but it's a decent sophomore effort.


Dark Avengers #175

Written by Jeff Parker

Art by Declan Shalvey and Frank Martin, Jr.

Letters by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

While Dark Avengers #175 isn't a relaunch per se, but it sure feels like a first issue. Although the creative team of Jeff Parker and Declan Shalvey haven't flown the coop with the changeover, the high-energy pacing of the last year or so certainly has. And, while that's not necessarily a bad thing for an issue that's set to change the storyline of the book, the lack of at least a peek at the still time-stranded Thunderbolts feels a little wrong. On the other hand, Parker and Shalvey are gelling better than ever, with Parker's take on Luke Cage remaining compelling and gruff, while Shalvey's storytelling, and moody, expressive characters really sell the premise of bad-guys-gone-sort-of-good. While this isn't a perfect issue, it does set the stage for a new chapter of Marvel's long-running concept of reformed villains in a better than average way.

It's cool to see Parker bringing in non-Thunderbolts consultants such as Hank Pym to aid Luke Cage in attempting to track down his former charges. It's nice to be reminded of how the title's dark corner fits into the rest of the Marvel universe, and Pym and Cage's interplay is terrific. It definitely makes me want to see Parker take on some more Avengers in the future. As the book progresses, Cage and the remaining T-Bolts find themselves face to face with four of Norman Osborn's latest batch of Avengers impostors. Following the requisite throw down, Cage learns that, with the majority of his team lost in time, Trick Shot, Ragnarok, Toxic Doxie, and Ai Apaec, are slated to be the next iteration of the Thunderbolts, now operating under as the Dark Avengers. Cage decides to lead the team, bringing along Skaar as his only real ally among the new line-up.

Since most of the issue is built around setting Cage against the Dark Avengers, and setting up the new direction for the title, the responsibility of making what could otherwise be a fairly procedural issue feel energetic and worthwhile rests squarely on Declan Shalvey's shoulders. Fortunately, he's up to the task, making ample use of texture and shadow to set an uneasy mood not just in the issue's combat sequences, but also during scenes such as Cage and Pym attempting to use Man-Thing's grove to contact the Thunderbolts Tower. Shalvey makes Cage the star of the book, taking him from such highlights as absent-mindedly shooing alligators, to flying into combat full of rage and power.

It's hard to see yet why this title needed to be re-branded, but with the title change aside, the direction still feels organic, relying on the same tension and intrigue that have made Parker's "Thunderbolts" a success. There's still plenty of time for the time-displaced former T-Bolts to show up, and with their story left open-ended, it seems likely that they'll be seen sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, it's time to focus on those characters still in the present, with Abe Jenkins and Songbird also staying on board. This issue is definitely a speed-bump when compared to the racing action of the last several, but as the beginning of a new chapter, it works, propped up largely by the quality of the creative team.


Creator-Owned Heroes #1

Written by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Steve Niles

Art by Phil Noto and Kevin Mellon

Lettering by Bill Tortolini

Published by Image

Review by Lan Pitts

'Rama Review: 10 out of 10

If only our rating system would go to 11 like the amps in This Is Spinal Tap, I'd easily try to reach for it here.

Creator-Owned Heroes acts as basically a two-fer. Half comic collection, half magazine with articles and interviews about the creative team as well as one with Neil Gaiman. It reminds me what Wizard used to be like. The passion is there for the medium and is full force here. It opens with "American Muscle", the Steve Niles and Kevin Mellon story. It's pretty straightforward story of a post-Apocalyptic gang of kids trying to get to find a better life. It's a great start to a six-parter that ends on a definite cliffhanger. Kevin Mellon's work here compared to his art on Heart is a little less edgy. He still has the same level of composition, but looks a little less jagged than what I remember. His colors match the dirty atmosphere, almost as if we're seeing it through a pair of dirty glasses. At first it seemed like an odd choice for Steve Niles to cover, but once everything was in place, it was a pleasant surprise.

Without skipping a page, we dive right into "Trigger Girl 6", which pairs the duo of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray with art by Phil Noto. Having a flair for 60's mod art, Noto really nails the action here. The panel construction is subtle, but it feels like the first step into something grander. A definite slow burn to get to the action, but going by visuals alone, this one really engaged me. It has a quasi-Diabolik vibe, and Noto's color pallet really makes the whole thing stand out. The story centers around an assassin that come out of what appears to be hibernation and is activated and sent on her mission to take down this aircraft. There's really nothing to it, but the premise and set up really have me intrigued.

After that, we're treated to an array of interviews with the think tank that brought about this creation. Just terrific insight that is rare on the printed page these days. You can hear how they feel about the comic industry as a whole and why they teamed up to bring something like this to the table. Steve Niles and Justin Gray especially voice their concern with lack of creativity and lay out some valid points and theories. In addition to all of that, we're treated to a brief Steve Bunche article about the history of comics and what something like Creator-Owned Heroes means.

Something like this needed to be made a long time ago, but I'm more than thrilled we're getting to savor this now. In this day and age where the big two dominate the box office and the Diamond charts, Creator-Owned Heroes offers a slight reminder why we all fell in love with comics to begin with. It's worth much more than the cover price and I'm looking forward to what comes from this.


Harbinger #1

Written by Joshua Dysart

Art by Khari Evans and Ian Hannin

Lettered by Rob Steen

Published by Valiant Entertainment

Review by Pierce Lydon

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The return of Valiant continues with Joshua Dysart and Khari Evans’ Harbinger #1. On the surface this is just another book about a super-powered teen caught in a tug of war between warring corporations and struggling to maintain some semblance of control over his powers. But Dysart injects the book with some darker undertones and removes the more happy-go-lucky aspects of superhero comics to create a more disturbing, damaged realization of a world where psychics do in fact exist.

The concept at the heart of Harbinger is an easy hook. Essentially, it’s akin to a realistic take on the X-Men in a world run by Magnetos where Professor X doesn’t exist. There’s no spandex here. There’s no mansion. There are no missions. This isn’t about saving the world. But it is about struggling to survive and striving to find your place in the world. On that level, everyone can relate. Still the execution, mostly on the character development level, leaves me wanting. The dialogue between our main protagonist Pete Stanchek and his best friend, Joe, is sometimes clumsy and unnatural. The same goes for Pete’s interactions with former neighborhood crush, Kris. This could be Dysart’s way of showing us how terribly Pete relates to others but even on that level it is stilted. It’s the way that older people think teenagers sound, not the way they actually do.

But some of the themes are interesting. The ethics of having psychic powers comes into play in a number of ways. The book opens with eventual antagonist and fellow psiot Toyo Harada as a teenager in 1951 killing a soldier. Pete uses his powers to rob a pharmacy and get the girl. Are these the actions of dumb teenagers not realiziing the impact of the decisions they are making or are these characters actually bad people? It’s unclear for now. Pete is an unreliable character. His actions are desperate. We may not like Pete (now or ever) but his situation is compelling. He doesn’t think about whether something is the right or wrong thing to do but eventually he’ll have to.

Khari Evans artwork in this issue is inconsistent but definitely shows potential. Character renderings are the biggest culprit here. Evans’ expressions work go some nuanced and effective to unclear and unfocused in a matter of panels, robbing the characters of any kind of memorable moments. But Evans does an excellent job with a mental projection sequence that recalls some of Travel Foreman’s work on Animal Man. When all is said and done. The art is not all good but it’s not all bad. It’s placed firmly in the center. There isn’t a lot of interesting stuff to draw in this issue but the moment there is, Evans succeeds. I think that’s very telling.

This is an interesting debut. The potential is here for an exciting story but the groundwork necessary to get there drags. Dysart has a track record with books like Unknown Soldier and B.P.R.D., hopefully he’s able to channel the higher concepts at work here into more compelling character work. Evans’ work might just get better as the stakes are raised. Harbinger #1 could become the exciting and challenging title it once was but right now it’s a little rough around the edges.


Artifacts #18

Written by Ron Marz

Art by Stjepan Sejic

Lettering by Troy Peteri

Published by Top Cow

Review by Lan Pitts

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

You know, had you told me a year ago that Jackie Estacado would have been the undisputed King of the Universe, I'd have scratched my head and dismissed you as some sort of sadist that wanted to see the Top Cow universe in ashes. However, here we are, with Estacado in charge of this new universe he's created and life has been pretty alright so far, until your one true enemy comes back to mess that up for you.

Tom Judge has been doing his best to keep the balance of things intact, but there's slight changes here and there. The biggest one so far is that in this new universe, Finch becomes the Angelus host, instead of Dani this time around. Another interesting change if Jackie no longer has to worry about dying if he impregnates a normal woman. Good to be king, I guess. This issue really acts as another stepping stone for a bigger adventure right around the corner, as well as fills in more to the greater puzzle of the universe as a whole. Ron Marz keeps up the steady pace of revealing a bit of the mystery with each issue since Artifacts has gone ongoing, and this issue is no different. Solid dialog all across the issue, giving the characters distinctive voices and attitudes.

This is probably the most dialog I've seen packed in the series in a while, but it goes smoothly with Stjepan Sejic on board. His balance of action-oriented moments blend in well with quieter moments, and even manages to pull off a sultry moment between Mr. and Mrs. Estacado. The past few issues have had great, visually-stunning fight scenes, but those had moved aside to give way to let the story breathe and give the characters to come alive. Especially moments that mirror the old Top Cow universe like Finch and Dani's interaction. While it doesn't hold the same punch it had a year and some change ago, Team Artifacts still holds down the fort with ease and keeps me entertained.

A few hiccups with some delays haven't detoured me from continuing reading. The best thing about Artifacts is that while yes, it is a reboot of the universe, but we have one thing out of place and it's interesting to see key players slowly come around and how they're different, but to have Judge be aware of the changes around him is a nice creative call and it feels we're on the journey with him.

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