10 Nov 2014

Mini Reviews 09/11/2014

We may not have time to review every book on our pull-lists but we do aim to provide a snapshot of what's been released over the past week, encompassing the good, the bad, and those that lie somewhere in between.

TOOTH & CLAW #1
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Art: Benjamin Dewey & Jordie Bellaire
Image $2.99

Matt C: Yet another highly impressive debut from Image, this time via the expertly reliable pen of Mr Kurt Busiek. We often talk about ‘world-building’, and how it’s an utterly essential component when crafting a fantasy tale, but that term seems to be rendered redundant here; there’s no world-building on display because this world has already been built to perfection, right down to the tiniest detail. There’s a palpable sense that the writer has plotted this rich alternative history to such a degree that it feels immediately ‘lived in’ and – relatively speaking – real. The art of course adds to this effect, with Dewey rendering some astonishingly realised environments, and the choice not to make the anthropomorphised characters too human really pays off by adding a definite depth and believability, with the texture and shading of Bellaire’s colours compound that feeling. All this, and it’s a double-sized issue for $2.99. Certainly one of the best investments you’ll make this year. 8/10

Stewart R: Blimey! When the term ‘world building’ was mentioned in much of the lead-in blurb for Tooth & Claw they really weren’t kidding! For your $2.99 you get 48 full pages of illustrated wonder that feels like much, much more come the time you turn the final page. Busiek gives the reader a broad insight into this world of animals and magic, its religious and political structure, the perils that it faces following a long period of peace and relative prosperity and then at the climax he hints at how his depiction of one city’s fall will likely be just be one boulder in an avalanche of chaos and adventure. At this stage it’s not entirely clear if Dunstan will go on to be the protagonist whose eyes we will witness this downfall and troubled times, but he’s a good, innocent conduit for us to initially learn about this world and bear witness to the turning point where the magic truly begins to fail. The art from Benjamin Dewey and Jordie Bellaire brings back memories of illustrated works from the '70s I was exposed to as a young kid growing up in the '80s, yet with all of the impact of modern comic book storytelling. The anthropomorphism of the characters is incredibly well measured, the faces remaining true to the animals depicted and leaving much to the body language to capture mood and emotion. Awe-inspiring, engrossing, thrilling and a brilliant example of how you kick off a series. 9/10

AVENGERS & X-MEN: AXIS #4
Writer: Rick Remender
Art: Lenil Francis Yu & Gerry Alanguilan
Marvel $3.99


Matt C: Okay, I really have no clue what’s going on here any more. It does seem like a bunch of different ideas have been chucked into a blender and the incoherent mess that’s resulted has been used as the basis for this ‘plot’.  Many event books work because they have a strong high concept at their core, one that can be boiled down into a single sentence. AXIS? I wouldn’t know where to begin. Perhaps  ‘Good guys turning into bad guys and vice versa’ might be a start, but that would suggest there was far more clarity on display. Maybe instead of a sentence I could boil it down to one word, and that word would be “Eh?”. Oh, and anyone who still hasn’t gotten over the appearance of the ludicrous Clor in Civil War, AXIS goes one better and presents us with… Kluh! Yes. Really. You only have to pick up an issue of any other book Remender is writing to know he’s infinitely better than this. 3/10


AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #9
Writer: Dan Slott
Art: Olivier Coipel & Justin Ponsor
Marvel $4.99


Stewart R: I’ll say it now, if you’ve been disappointed with Marvel’s signposted ‘big’ events of the year in the shape of Original Sin and the current unfolding Avengers & X-Men: AXIS then I seriously suggest you take a look at this opening issue proper of the 'Spider-Verse' saga and see if there’s something here that ticks the boxes that those other series have failed to provide. This for me feels like Marvel’s A-grade material, both in terms of Dan Slott’s writing and the premium sheen of the Coipel/Ponsor artwork. While the 'Spider-Verse' has been ramping up in associated titles, Slott summarizes the idea quickly, succinctly and with particular venom as Morlun hunts a Spider-Man from an alternate dimension and shows just how real a threat he poses. From there it’s something of a whirlwind as Slott allows incoming readers to get a glimpse of 616 Peter Parker’s current life troubles, with the alluring Cindy Moon, a.k.a. Silk, presenting attraction problems as well as pushing Peter in the superheroics stakes, before the gathering army of Spiders arrive on his doorstep and bring with them a giant wake up call. This really is event storytelling at its best and Slott truly nails it with his usual combination of humour and grim-jawed tension, while Coipel is a perfect fit to drive home the importance of this plot. The backup story delves further into the Inheritors, their family structure and their greater plan for the arachnid avatars we all love, and as a complete issue this is one of those points where those who may have stepped away from the adventures of Peter Parker may very well want to jump back onboard! 9/10


BIRTHRIGHT #2
Writer: Joshua Williamson
Art: Andrei Bressan & Adriano Lucas
Image/Skybound $2.99


Matt C: Not quite as strong as the debut but this instalment does a grand job of continuing onwards from what has already been established, which means the doubts surrounding the Conan-esque warrior’s true identity are slowly being dispelled. This is achieved through a combination of genuinely affecting character moments and gloriously dynamic action sequences. The contemporary sequences are obviously where the thrust of the narrative is but the flashbacks are starting to move in an unexpected and unpredictable direction. There’s a real buzz around this book at the moment so if you’ve not sought it out already, do so at your earliest convenience. 8/10

James R: This is why I love my friends that make up the PCG. If left to my own devices, I would've missed out on Birthright - I tend not to be a big fan of sword & sorcery-type tales, and the cover to Birthright #1 made me think 'Probably not for me.' However, the effusive praise of my friends made me take a punt on this title, and I'm incredibly grateful that they persuaded me! Birthright is a book full of surprises. The book's creator, Joshua Williamson has said he's interested in telling an 'After' story - one that takes place after a protagonist has completed their heroic feats and labours. I find this interesting as it's also the central conceit of Joe Casey's excellent Sex - what does a superhero do in retirement? But Birthright is way more than that - adding a terrific twist that the Conan-esque Mikey Rhodes is actually working as an agent of his nemesis, King Lore. Williamson keeps the pace of the book at a high tempo, and juggles the flashback fantasy scenes with the present plight of the incredulous Rhodes family with a deft hand. Adriano Lucas'  art is equally impressive in portraying the two worlds, and this all adds up to a hugely promising new title. Finally, at $2.99 for 22 pages, this is a bargain of a book. 8/10


TERRIBLE LIZARD #1
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Art: Drew Moss & Ryan Hill
Oni Press $3.99


Matt C: With the likes of Sixth Gun for Oni, Magento for Marvel, Remains for Monkeybrain and Empty Man for BOOM!, there’s no questioning Cullen Bunn’s significant talent as a writer. Due to a delayed release for Hellbreak from the writer at Oni following a colourist swap, Terrible Lizard has moved up to take its place, and while I was far more keen on the pitch for Hellbreak, I felt I should give this book a shot. Well, it looks like I need to stick to waiting on Hellbreak because although there’s nothing demonstrably wrong with Terrible Lizard it feels very lightweight and throwaway, and possibly more suited to a much younger audience (that are not likely to get their hands on it). It’s a little bit silly – not that there’s anything wrong with that – and more than anything it comes across as Bunn scratching his kaiju itch without giving any hint that there’ll be more to this than monster smackdown after monster smackdown. An easy one to skip. 5/10


MEN OF WRATH #2
Writer: Jason Aaron
Art: Ron Garney & Matt Milla
Marvel/Icon $3.50


James R: Dark? In the words of the Stranger in the Big Lebowski "Darker than a black steer's tookus on a moonless prairie night." If you thought Aaron's excellent Southern Bastards was bleak, then Men Of Wrath makes it look like children's TV at points. As we learn more about the Wrath family, the relentless bloodshed doesn't stop - from a rabid family massacre at the outset, through the slaughter of horses and culminating in a child being shotgguned in the face - Aaron revels in the freedom that the 'Mature content' label gives him. It's compelling stuff, but I freely admit that I likes me a nihilistic tale about corrupt and nasty people. I don't quite love it like I do Southern Bastards - that may just be a question of time (I'll let you know after 5 issues!). I also think that Ron Garney is a good artist, but he's not in the same league as Bastards' Jason Latour. After two issues, the books certainly living up to expectations and left a mark on me - it's definitely one that I'm onboard with for the duration. 7/10


NAILBITER #7
Writer: Joshua Williamson
Art: Mike Henderson & Adam Guzowski
Image $2.99


Matt C: A good many years ago, in the seventh issue of Powers (back when it was still great), Brian Michael Bendis went all meta and had Warren Ellis feature in his story, with the esteemed comics writer joining the title’s lead detectives for a ridealong. It was a gimmick but it worked brilliantly and as a homage to that issue Williamson has added Bendis to the cast of his seventh issue of Nailbiter. Yet again, it’s a gimmick, and while it’s not quite as successful as the Powers issue (which came during a break between arcs rather than smack bang in the middle of an ongoing plot), it’s effective enough, with various other nods to the Bendis series (the multiple talking heads double-page spread!) to show absolutely genuine love for the writer’s work. Look at it as an amusing detour rather than a hump in the road for this creepy, disturbing and darkly humourous series. 7/10

Stewart R: The main thrust of the first arc seemed to wrap up after just four issues and since then Williamson has been more than willing to expand on the town of Buckaroo, it’s strange legacy and take something of a high-level view of what it takes to be a serial killer, while the mystery that drew Nick Finch to the hotbed for psychopaths bubbles on in the background. As Matt C mentions in his review this apparently mirrors/mimics the trick Bendis utilised back in Powers #7 and I find that to be something of a brave proposition in a young Image series sat amongst eager and driven competition - dally for too long early in your narrative and the readership could grow restless, especially with plot hooks that could be referred to as ‘gimmicks’. Thankfully I found the inclusion of the sleuthy, curious Bendis to be well handled indeed, adding a little character expansion to Edward Charles Warren and making a fine point on knowing what it means to be a killer, whether committing a heinous crime or fictionalizing one with gravity and emotion and meaning for the reader(s). It could be said that perhaps the depiction of Bendis goes a little too far into clutz/schmuck territory, but in that we get a sense once again that danger does truly lurk within the shadows of this captivating town and in Nailbiter as a comic book series. 8/10


SUPERMAN UNCHAINED #9
Writer: Scott Snyder
Art: Jim Lee, Dustin Nguyen & Alex Sinclair
DC $4.99


James R: Blockbuster time - it's the final issue of Superman Unchained, which has been an unusual experience. When it was announced, it looked like it would be a slam-dunk - Scott Snyder bringing his considerable talent to the most iconic of heroes, and combined with Jim Lee it was a DC comics A-team all round. However, the problem that comes with Jim Lee pencilling a monthly title surfaced once again, and Unchained's release schedule was certainly not faster than a speeding bullet. Even with scheduling problems out of the equation, this book hasn't quite lived up to the promise. I've said before that even though my tastes now certainly run towards the Image stable and independent comics, I would still love to be buying a high-quality Bat and Superman book every month, as I love these characters. Unchained certainly gave me an unashamedly blockbuster Superman, and the last issue carried on in the same vein, with Superman having to face a gert-huge alien invasion fleet (is there any other kind?!) whilst Lex Luthor outlines just why he hates Superman so much. As is often the case with the Man of Steel, it's tough to bring us anything we've not seen before, but Snyder and Lee wrap up the book in suitable grand fortissimo mode. I enjoyed it as a fanboy, but in final analysis, it's a good Superman story well told rather than a landmark tale. 8/10


IMPERIAL #4
Writer: Steven T. Seagle
Art: Mark Dos Santos & Brad Simpson
Image $2.99


Stewart R: I’d not really known what to expect with this series though the hook was compulsive enough - when a man is about to marry the girl of his modest dreams he’s presented with the chance to become the greatest superhero on Earth, but to take that opportunity he’ll have to give up all he’s worked for. Now, here at the end it’s become quite clear that Seagle has not, for one second, deviated from that premise through the four issues of this miniseries. He’s shown how Mark has struggled through the entire exercise, from trying to dismiss the idea as fantasy, coming up short in his early training, clashing badly with his would-be tutor, and then failing to find a way where he could possibly have his cake and eat it too. To be honest I was a little surprised that Seagle kept things on such a dedicated line, but here, at the climax his message about life, love and what we make of it rings out clearly and I have to commend him for sticking to it. I can’t say that the conclusion sits comfortably with me as I genuinely got to the end and had to check online as to whether there was another issue to come (there isn’t!), but after a few hours to digest how he’s crafted these four chapters it’s clear that this isn’t a comic book about becoming a superhero, it’s a comic about becoming a man, and in that regard it’s been well written, conceived and delivered even if it hasn’t hit any particularly unique heights along the way. 7/10

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