Wolverine and the X-Men #14

Written by Jason Aaron

Art by Jorge Molina, Norman Lee, and Morry Hollowell

Letters by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Wolverine and The X-Men #14 comes very close to being one of the best standalone stories of AvX so far, but falls just short of the mark. Focusing on Colossus's relationship with Kitty Pryde, Jason Aaron broaches the conflict boiling beneath Piotr's metal skin but never goes deep enough to do more than scratch the surface of what happens when a kind, poetic man becomes the host of not just one, but two greater beings who stand at diametrically opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum.

The story starts strong enough, with Colossus breathlessly confessing his love for Kitty, while also listing the great works that the Phoenix Five have accomplished. Kitty is not receptive, to say the least, leading Colossus to lose control, rampaging through the Jean Grey Academy while Kitty desperately tries to talk him down. There's a lot of emotional electricity flying around, but very little of it actually delves into the subtext, which I think is meant to further Piotr's descent into madness thanks to possession by both Cyttorak and the Phoenix Force. Unfortunately, Colossus really just comes off as petty and angry, rather than conflicted and passionate. It's disarming in the wrong way.

This issue also sees the return of several erstwhile X-Men to the Jean Grey Academy, as Iceman, Angel, and others find themselves hotly at odds with the Phoenix Five's methods for taking down and detaining the Avengers. Parallels are being drawn between the X-Men and those that they've always feared, but this kind of development seems to serve only to paint them as outright villains, a curious twist considering the push that's supposed to be in store for the X-Men after this crossover wraps up.

Jorge Molina's art is decent, recalling some elements of regular artist Nick Bradshaw, but occasionally his faces are a little too twisted, and Norman Lee's inks come off as too rough to complement many of Molina's panels. Likewise, Morry Hollowell's colors alternate between being lush and intuitive and being too flat and lifeless. I've seen all three of these artists do great work, but in this case, they don't seem to gel as a team. I'd like to see more from Molina as part of the Wolverine and the X-Men team, as some of his other X-Men work has been really terrific, but I think he lacks some cohesion with his collaborators.

This issue leaves much to be desired. There's a lot of potential in exploring Colossus's shattered psyche, but it seems like Aaron is either shying away from the hard questions, or simply fumbling the ball in attempting to answer them. Still, there's groundwork here to show that the Phoenix Five maybe aren't as in control as they think. It's entirely possible that we'll see the conflicted Colossus as the lynchpin in defeating his allies.


Before Watchmen: Comedian #2

Written by Brian Azzarello

Art by J.G. Jones and Alex Sinclair

Lettering by Clem Robins

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Neither a laff-riot nor a darker journey into the abyss, Before Watchmen: Comedian's greatest sin is that it's only going through the motions. Sure the amoral, flag-festooned thug might be having the time of his life fighting in Vietnam, but the enthusiasm barely translates to the reader.

Writer Brian Azzarello starts off slow, tying the Comedian to the one shred of humanity we've seen thus far — his link to the Kennedy clan. Two issues in, it's clear they will have a deeper tie to the series than I initially expected, but it still reads as a tactical error on Azzarello's part: The Comedian's story still isn't humanize by throwing in his relationship with a historical figure, but instead the reader is taken out of the narrative, struggling to figure out when in U.S. history this is taking place.

Once Eddie is sent to Vietnam, meanwhile, Azzarello is surprisingly nonchalant about the whole scenario. Considering in the original Watchmen series the Comedian is deeply affected by the war, it's odd that there isn't a greater sense of mood here — either joyful or claustrophobic. Instead, there's sort of a coldness to the scenes, with Azzarello bouncing between half-hearted themes about America's distaste for actually fighting in wars, or simply saying how hot 'Nam is. There are some nice action-movie one-liners here from Eddie himself, but the moments are fleeting at best.

The few times this issue picks up is all on artist J.G. Jones. While his inking isn't quite as lush as I think it could be, he can choreograph the hell out of a fight scene. In particular, there's a moment where Eddie pops a grenade into the air, with Jones circling the falling projectile in its own panel before it explodes all over the page. His characters' faces, however, still feel a little muddled, sapping the book further of its emotional potential.

War is hell, but you wouldn't know it based on Before Watchmen: The Comedian. Too cool to show any strong reactions one way or the other, there's no theme, no stakes and no danger to pique readers' interest. This doesn't add anything to Eddie Blake's descent into despair and madness — unless you're a completist or a die-hard Jones fan, this book is skippable fodder.


Masks and Mobsters #1

Written by Joshua Williamson

Art by Mike Henderson

Published by Monkeybrain Comics

Review by Pierce Lydon

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Monkeybrain Comics has been on a roll since their launch because they've delivered stories that tread new ground by injecting familiar storytelling tropes and genres with a little bit of whimsy. Masks and Mobsters #1 goes in a bit of a different direction. Most comic book fans are aware that superheroes existed in the '30s and '40s but Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson are more interested in the other side of the coin. In Masks and Mobsters, they seek to show us the effect that superheroes have on regular, old organized crime.

After a quick cold open, we are immediately thrown into a flashback. Williamson gets down to brass tacks pretty quickly in this one. He uses all of two pages to provide us with all the background we need for this series and two pages later he breaks all of our expectations of the story. By the end of the book, readers are left with a completely different status quo than where we began because of focused, concise storytelling. Williamson never lets any one scene last two long before throwing everything we thought we knew out the window. It keeps the pacing from feeling bogged down by dialogue and even though the reveals aren't completely unpredictable, it makes for a really fun read.

Mike Henderson's art is crucial in selling not only the world of this story but the twists as well. Devoid of color, the blacks, whites and grays add a noir feel to the story that is unmistakable. Our hero, Bobby Silver, is relatively anonymous-looking though and the similarities between him and caped crusader Doctor Daylight make their confrontation a bit confusing. Henderson provides excellent character work in terms of expression and body language but the actual design of the characters falls flat. Still, blasé character designs are propped up by solid storytelling and dynamic panel layouts. Art has definitely been one of the strongest parts of the Monkeybrain launch and Henderson's work on Masks and Mobsters continues that trend.

Masks and Mobsters exists at an interesting crossroads of both traditional superhero and traditional crime noir stories. The first issue is high-octane action, constantly reinventing itself with Williamson's acute sense for dramatic page turns and Henderson's knack for big moments. This is another strong entry in the Monkeybrain catalogue that seems as though it will only get stronger with time.



Written by Mauro Mantella

Art by Leandro Rizzo and Marcelo Blanco

Adaptation by Chad Jones

Lettering by Logan Swift & Michael Sebastian

Published by Altercomics Studio

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The graphic novel Fictionauts is painted with the same broad brush that created such works as Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen adventures, or Mike Carey's The Unwritten - dealing, as those venerable projects do, with the importance of fiction, while working as a celebration of ideas.

What distinguishes Fictionauts is its focus on popular culture figures and settings (exploring the tip of the cameo iceberg, one will find The Time Tunnel, a Dalek, the Seaview, Rod Serling, Godzilla, and most amusingly, the Sea Monkeys that one would find for sale in old comic advertisements). The tone is generally tongue-in-cheek, though it treats its main concept - that of a specialized team charged with defending, preserving, and restoring balance to all manner of fiction - with an appropriate amount of gravitas, and a generally fleet-footed pacing that works to the story's advantage.

Divided into three segments, Mauro Mantella's story (adapted by editor Chad Jones) works to create moments of surprising pathos (primarily dealing with the Fictionaut named Jack - who was rent from the pages of a Dickens novel) in the midst of a multi-layered plot that at times verges on the terribly convoluted. As the Fictionauts travel between various fictional worlds, the narrative at times feels almost untenably held together by the thinnest of threads - the juxtaposition of the journeys of the heroes with the machinations of the villains (the mysterious "Agent X" and the Don Knotts-looking Professor Calculus Poisson, whose name is a tip of the hat to Tintin) don't quite lock together in satisfying fashion until the very end of the third part.

Even then, when the narrative strands finally join, and the pressing questions are answered (there are a number of ancillary mysteries raised throughout which only further convolute and dilute the book, but which I assume will be resolved and addressed in future volumes), the final developments have the bizarre quality of being both expected and surprising. I can't help but feel that the payoff lacks the emotional resonance it could have had given a few more pages where we learned more about the main cast (with the exception of Jack, they are somewhat sketchily developed), and fewer hollow narrative threads throughout the story. This final reveal throws all of the proceeding events into a wholly different context, and also allows for an opportunity to express the truth and importance we find in our own fictions.

The dialogue and characters buoy the plot - the lead characters are likable, the villains curious, and the keepers of fiction, with such names as "Rainbow Racer," and "Lady Conceptia," are suitably mysterious. The dialogue is at its best when peppered with intertextual references, which it often is - and not burdened with cumbersome exposition. There's plenty of sharp humor in some of the interactions - and a sequence involving Jack's realization of the limitations of his fictional life in a real world provides the emotional heart of the book.

Leandro Rizzo's linework is fine and detailed, done with far more of an illustrator's eye, and his renderings of famous and lesser cultural touchstones are one of the delights of the book. He brings distinctive body-types to each of the characters, and creates diverse landscapes for each world the book visits. The lead characters and their primary milieu are steeped in the retro-futuristic style that so visually epitomized the pulp science-fiction of the 1950s (though it wasn't retro at that time, naturally...), and greatly informs the books style and sensibility. I was also quite taken with the design of the Fictionauts vessel - which nimbly combines a jet-age fountain pen with the contours of Jules Verne's Nautilus.

Marcelo Blanco's color work, however, is very muted, favoring monochomatic washes for the backgrounds, and dull earth tones and pastels for costuming. Art and color work best together in the book's engaging opening, which fully captures the sort of "wood-cut," antique-American aesthetic that's needed. The lettering by Logan Swift and Michael Sebastian is smartly done as well, using an older typeface for many of the "fictional" characters represented throughout, including Jack, and a Courier font for Lady Conceptia - evoking the idea that the character is responsible for maintaining the act of creation by speaking "a la typewriter."

Still, there is great charm to be sussed from both concept and story - the opening, dealing with a minor "alteration" which saves the ending of Moby Dick immediately informs the reader as to both the nature of the story as well as the abilities and goals of the Fictionauts. The Rod Serling cameo captures the acerbic and ominous qualities of The Twilight Zone, and there are some lively, entertaining narrative touches - including diary entries which condense many of the Fictionauts adventures to single panels - montage is far more important to this book than sustained motion. In addition, the notion that blank pages in a book are what spurs the main mystery and conflict is suitably mystical and mysterious, capturing the fear and sublimated delight that lurks within that particular endless void.

Still, the first third of the book is probably the strongest - it strongly lays out its concept, commits to it, and is consistently filled with scenes and moments that range from the charming and curious to the sublimely ridiculous. Once the story details such things as an invasion of giant Communist robots, and a trip to a dystopic, mirror-image of the Fictionauts own world- here called the "Enigmaverse" - it begins to lose its narrative focus, and the pacing begins to become somewhat listless. The very final moments of the story, however - dealing with the aftermath of their battle against the Professor and Agent X - have a surprising intimacy and resonance, ably supported by the well-drawn, well-framed artwork. If fictional exploration is part of your bread-and-butter, then Fictionauts is a curious excursion that treads between the audacious and the goofy - working as both high-concept pulp adventure, and as a look into the elements that makes characters, and in turn, ourselves as readers, tick.

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