Uncanny Avengers Annual (2014) Review

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STORY BY Rick Remender

ART BY Paul Renaud

Rick Remender takes a break from his reality splitting, time hopping madness of his Apocalypse Twins story arc. Instead, Remender gives us a satire about the entertainment industry while using Mojo as his surrogate. The story begins with Mojo trying to pitch his new high concept story arc to a room full of statistic vomiting board members until they finally green light a story about the Uncanny Avengers being attacked by their supernatural counterparts. Sound familiar because it should. This is a nod to the DC crossover event, Forever Evil, which was kicked off by Justice League and Justice League Dark fighting each other before they united to confront a larger antagonist, the Crime Syndicate. This metafictional nod sets the tone for the whole rest of the issue while Remender consistently makes fun of the poor choices the artists, editors, writers, and critics have been guilty of making in the Comic Book if not Entertainment Industry as a whole.

It’s interesting when the board members tell Mojo the story needs more highschool type drama in order for its target demographic to better relate to the characters. This is a self-referential sucker punch to Young Avengers, Jean Grey’s School, Hellfire Club, Avengers Academy. It has become increasingly frustrating watching the story arc play second fiddle to the love quadrangles. Brian Michael Bendis has admitted that the relationship between Emma Frost and Scott Summers made little sense. Storm is now with Wolverine instead of Black Panther. Does it matter? Nope, but the writers will still use this gossip to world build like it was one of Grandma’s daytime soap operas. Seriously, Logan is old, hairy, short, broke, angry, alcoholic, who had killed his “one true love” who he was having an affair with. Yet, Wolverine has slept with more people that would make even Emma Frost blush. If Wolverine didn’t have the healing factor, 80% of Marvel’s female population would have STD’s because of him.

However, the big jab is towards audiences in general. Remender comments how today critics are too afraid to say they don’t understand a plot. Instead, they will take the opposite approach and compliment the story no matter how indecipherable the story may be. No one wants to appear stupid so everyone goes along with the flow. In addition, if the story is too straight forward, people will whine about how boring it is. Basically, Rick Remender has boiled critics down to an adolescent child who suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder.

Quite honestly, how can we argue? Plot twists, action, and relationships being shoveled in just to keep peoples attention doesn’t equal good writing. Soon, it turns into a tangled mess and like Rogue in this story warns, “don’t pull too hard at the loose plot strings”; otherwise, it will cause the whole story to unravel. Perhaps the audience should dare to question the integrity of these stories. Hang on Mark Waid. How’s Daredevil able to jump around a city without killing the little girl with a bomb inside her gut or Hulk jumping around the city with his brain hanging out? Let’s not even get into the babbling nonsense of Faction’s Inhumanity or Spenser and Kot’s Secret Avengers.

In addition, it’s always a pleasure when writers stab at marketing research which force writers to curve their writing towards what is hot and trending in order to connect with their target demographic. For example, using a Marvel version of twitter in place of dialogue boxes even though it slows the pacing to a grueling stop is just as tacky as when the 80’s Teen Titans would reference Michael Jackson or product slogans. Yep, here’s looking at you Brian Bendis and Kieron Gillen.

Rick Remender has given us a fun commentary about the state of the Comic Book Industry. Although it came out of nowhere, it is nice that an A list writer validates the back slide of comic book standards. Although a critic can now be anyone with an internet connection, a 7th grade level of education, and a working knowledge of pop culture, doesn’t mean the industry should lower their own standards. Somebody should take accountability for the quality and content.

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Forever Evil: Blight (2014) Review

justice league darkSTORY BY J.M. DeMatteis, Ray Fawkes

ART BY Mikel JaninVicente CifuentesGuillermo Ortego, Francis Portela

Blight is the Jungian Shadow projection or manifestation of all of Humanity’s fears and evil thoughts. Unlike other stories which claim evil is an outside antagonist influencing people’s actions, evil in Fawkes and Matteis story is created by people themselves. When the Crime Syndicate invaded earth causing massive amounts of death and destruction, people’s fears and anger enhanced Blight’s strength and presence until it became it’s own devastating force. This imbalance between good and evil disrupted the natural order of Earth thereby forcing heroes like Swamp Thing and new Justice League Dark member Nightmare Nurse to find a way to restore balance. Meanwhile, Constantine remains self-invested in finding his lost lover Zatana. This was a nice throwback to the silver age of DC comics when writers would borrow heavily from new age philosophies.

With two writers, it’s impressive the characterization of everyone remained consistent. This keeps the story focused and although there are times the characters get in their own way, such as John Constantine, the story never undermines the characters in order to gain a cheap win. For example, Nightmare Nurse goes against her antagonistic nature in order to heal her team mates. Phantom Stranger goes against the league in order to save his friend. Constantine ends up being exiled for his bias towards self preservation. However, got to give Constantine credit for his uncanny ability to find a way to be naked around every female character in this story. Although we see character development, the writers never go against their protagonist’s natures. Each motivation, flaw, and strength makes the characters believable and relatable.

Another excellent feat is this is a eighteen issue story arc, yet it never slows down by throwing in filler and fluff. The action is steady but they weight it down with just the right amount of exposition boxes to give it the needed tone and danger. With an eighteen issue story arc of adrenaline action it could have been easy to just let the action push the story along; however, the writers take this opportunity to use inner dialogue boxes to further flesh out each person’s motivation. This is a nice contrast to some of the other Forever Evil story arcs which have villains being evil for evil sake or other shallow and unimaginative plot development.

Despite the heavy concept and high octane pacing, the story arc still manages to find room for humor to completely round out the story’s dynamic. The epitome of this comes when the protagonists are asking the great and powerful God for help and the writers rip a page from Wizard of Oz. Yep, the voice of god comes through a dog who is a mirror image of Toto and explains to John Constantine that he really does have a heart. Needless to say, it doesn’t take long before Constantine grows tired and walks out on God’s divine ability to state the obvious and take credit for other peoples work. Relax, this is a story where one of the most powerful heroes is a talking tree trunk. It isn’t exactly scripture although there was that talking bush that one time. Hmm, with all the other biblical references it wouldn’t be too far fetched for Matteis and Fawkes to write a scene about the Parliament of Trees speaking to Moses. After all, half the fun of reading Justice League Dark and Trinity of Sin is to see how the writers weave different religious mythology into the DC world.

Overall, Forever Evil: Blight is definitely one of the better installments. Although it lacks A list villains and heroes, the readers will inevitably care for each player involved, even the villains are able to earn the readers sympathy. In addition, these writers have proven they are capable of more than sitting on the sidelines cheering on the main Crossover event. Instead, they have crafted together an intense ride which showcases the difficulty of flawed individuals with conflicting motivations working together to achieve one goal.

Colder (2013) Review

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STORY BY Paul Tobin

ART BY Juan Ferreyra

Colder is set in a world where a Jungian Shadowland lies just beyond the perception of sanity. This place of nightmares are where all the fears and traumas dwell and wait for their chance to feed on damaged souls. There are two who can travel back and forth between chaos and order. Nimble Jack, the antagonist who looks like a gothy Neo-Nazi, feeds on those who are the most insane and corrupted. Nimble Jack has an uncanny ability to find his victims one loose thread that keeps their sanity stitched together and pull until they begin leaping from tall buildings or slipping nooses around their necks. Colder references the cold skinned Declan. Declan can feed on insanity too but in the process he is able to mend the fractured egos and pull them back into orderly state of being. These two form the duality between chaos and order, apathy and sympathy, despair and hope, and demonstrate what happens when one is tipped too far.

In first few pages, Paul Tobin walks us through an asylum where oppressive order burns away to violent chaos. With each new patient, their maddening diatribes become less coherent and their actions become more violent. This culminates with the introduction between Nimble Jack and Declan. In one scene, Ferreyra and Tobin perfectly capture Nimble Jack’s ruthless apathy. He crawls into a convict’s cell and unravels the man and motivates him to hang himself. Nimble Jack watches the convicts kicking dance of death and delightfully compares it to a man swimming. Meanwhile, they use Reece, Declan’s caretaker, as a way to demonstrate Declans compassion and sympathy. In order to get Reece to understand Nimble Jack and Declan’s world, Declan allows Reece to start losing her grip on reality in order to see the Shadowland. The deterioration of Reece’s state of mind throws Declan into deep regret and remorse.

Every character is a macabre caricature done in beautiful inks and paints. The panels are creative and break the mold in order to match the surrealism of this cerebral story. There’s the nostalgic flash back scenes which have newspaper or comic strip style gutters and framing. Whereas the shadowland will use its colors to softly create boarders while retaining the surreal aspect that each frame is fading into the other. Or, there are action sequences framed by rearview mirrors or close up shots of Nimble Jack in Declan’s eyeballs. Watching Nimble Jack grotesquely crawl out from underneath a victims skin, it’s hard to deny this is the most beautifully depicted nightmare currently on the shelves.

Colder has a cerebral depth which is often left out of most horror genre comics these days. Instead of relying on a cat and mouse chase, the creators decided to plunge into the depths of nightmares. They’ve created an unnerving intensity which will make its readers jump at their own shadows. 

Trillium (2014) Review

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STORY BY Jeff Lemire

ART BY Jeff Lemire

Once the final page to this incredible arc is flipped, the mind will have to take a moment to soak in the amount of layers and depth Jeff Lemire had just expressed. At first, Trillium begins as a hard Sci-Fi. Lemire crams heavy world building exposition into every tiny panel on his 12 grid layout. There’s a great sentient virus traveling throughout the universe eradicating all trace of humanity. The Trillium flower is our last hope for a cure. Meanwhile, our two protagonist William and Nika are racing against time and space to uncover the deeper meaning of the Trillium flower, the alien race who holds it sacred and the looming black hole.

Like all good Sci-Fi’s Lemire begins his story with a straight forward solve the mystery save the world scenario; however, once the tale finishes it becomes an exercise in existentialism. Lemire breaksdown the conventional linear narrative in order to accurately express his ideas and characters. For example, remember the cramming heavy exposition into those small panels? In addition, Lemire will also force us to flip the book upside down to read the story from the opposite protagonists perspective. There’s an issue where we have to read it from front to back and then back to front. Not only does this approach force the reader to become actively involved, but also this style breaks linear continuity down into a singularity.

Also, Lemire has also went to great lengths to show a communication breakdown. He portrays this rather through people not being able to speak or understand the other, or the perspectives and motivation runs against the protagonist ideology. It’s only solved with patience and a connection through the Trillium flower. A flower which becomes more symbolic for unity as the story progresses. By the way, Lemire even took time out to create an alien alphabet where people willing to spend time can decode and translate the cryptic alien language.

In the background, the architectural designs and details for the Inca temples or the spaceships are highly detailed. Meanwhile the foreground objects such as characters and artifacts often have an impressionist style. With the world building details of technology contrasting with the unusual morphology of the characters and cosmos, it establishes a more classic science fiction tone and style.

Jeff Lemire forces the reader to actively participate in this Sci-Fi adventure, but it isn’t without reward. The amount of work and creativity Lemire put into deconstructing conventional comic book narrative in order to build this epic is staggering and worth applause. Once the final page to this incredible arc has flipped, it will a take moment before we realize Jeff Lemire had cleverly broke down the existential question into one answer. The non linear structure, the shifting perspectives, the use of language and technology it’s all about a message which transcends beyond time and space.

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The Black Beetle : No Way Out (2014) Review

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STORY BY Francesco Francavilla

ART BY Francesco Francavilla

Black Beetle is a tribute to noir style crime fighters. Although the case begins with the protagonist, Black Beetle, trying to take down a crime boss, the unexpected turn of events creates a hard boiled reactionary who-done-it. Because these scenarios are common in the violent and seedy world of pulp, Black Beetle had developed a paranoid sense to always “expect the unexpected”. Therefore, he consistently pulls out a new gadget that fits each unexpected occasion. Regardless, this doesn’t mean he’s the omniscient and impervious type of hero. We actively watch Black Beetle find and follow clues while taking a significant amount of damage, rather from a concussion blast or falling helplessly into a pit of man-eating rats and more bizarre situations which rely on equal amounts of luck and cunning.

When it comes to action, none can pack action into one panel like Francavilla. His mastery over colors and framing creates a superior amount of boiling tension and kinetic energy. For example, at one point he uses a retro style which uses shifting colors and onomatopoeia in the spreads for the Hard Way Fight. There are other points where Francavilla will creatively layer car chases or explosions over panels which also continues the explosive momentum. Towards the end he cleverly put the panels together for a jigsaw spread during the pulpy obligatory revelatory montage. Then, there’s The Beetle’s car. It will only have one illustration per issue, but the car combined with the beautiful use of light beams as motion lines and dust clouds and gravel spitting out of the panel makes its brief appearance a roaring pleasure.

Although the artwork is masterfully crafted and designed, a brief scan of each page clearly depicts this is a loving tribute to the minimalist style of noir comicstrips and pulp magazines. The tri-tone colors bleeding beyond the thick inky lines also retain that pulp magazine tone. In another nod to the classic heroes, Francavilla will use contrasting colors for characterization. Orange and black signifies the Beetle while yellow and black represents Labyrinto. Because there’s a minimal amount of detail in the background, what details he does give draws the eyes in to the frame almost prompting the reader to play detective and look for clues. Despite the minimalist comicstrip style, Francavilla’s art still brings Colt City to life. There’s just enough to give the impression a well placed bomb could make all its brick and mortar crumble into a pile of dust. Then to give Colt City’s night life a little more character he will sometimes illustrate music in the panels gutters. Every detail in every panel is thought-out and put there in order to establish tone and place.

For those who miss the stripped down and straight forward plots of Detective Comics, this is a new series which is worth shining a light on. Although it’s hard to talk about Francessco Francavilla without gushing over his art, the hard boiled plot, protagonist, and villain have just as much layers and details integrated as his art. Once the reader flips that final page, they are sure to go back to the beginning and start retracing every step through every panel.

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Rat Queens: Campaign 1 (2014) Review

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STORY BY Kurtis J. Wiebe

ART BY Roc Upchurch

For those old, new and current gamers of dice throwing Role Playing Games of any sort, Rat Queens is your mistress. The campaign has the cliché underlying mystery with a few small battles which build up to one major all epic of epicness battle sure to top every battle until the end of the next story arc.

However, this isn’t what makes Rat Queen’s so special. It’s the fact that every loud mouth character is a perfect iteration of the people we use to chuck dice and level grind with. Betty is the social and provocative butterfly who always brings the candy and drinks. Jerk know-it-all Hannah endlessly pulls spells out of her ass to save the day while effortlessly pissing everyone off. Meanwhile, Violet would rather rely on her armor class and attacks rather than her intelligence checks to solve any problem. Then there’s the quiet and mysterious Dee who spends an obnoxious amount of time juggling her backstory and healing the Rat Queens. Finally there’s Sawyer who takes on the role of being the passive game master who just wants to try and push these vulgar degenerates into the direction of some sort of quest.

Unlike other takes on the RPG genre, this series doesn’t get bogged down with the quests or backstories. Instead, it relies on quips and quick jabs at each other to move the pacing along. Even when there are brutal fights with explosive guts and brain matter, chances are the readers are still laughing from the Rat Queen’s hijinks. The Rat Queen’s also make sure to wink or stumble towards the fourth wall cleverly letting us in on the joke.

The Rat Queen’s as well as all the other guild’s are adorned with garb which is part fantasy and part contemporary. This is a nice touch and it’s easy to imagine people dressed similarly at the next Live Action Role Playing gathering or Renaissance Festival. At first glance the lines seem jagged and the characters are abstract caricatures. However, with closer examination the amount of exhausting depth and detail pops out to a photorealistic quality. Rather it be from the physical traits such as eyes, ears, hands, or the backgrounds contrasting with the foregrounds through the use of shading, focus, and textures, or the simple and small tears in the fabric and flesh, each panel is a feast for the eyes. For an indie release, it’s amazing Roc Upchurch is able to pull off the coloring, inking, drawing with just his own two hands.

Although this might seem like a niche release, it’s ridiculously enjoyable for even the level one readers. Even if one misses a few issues, Kurtis J Wiebe writes a way where any issue can be a jumping on point. Once again, this series doesn’t get bogged down with an epic overarching story where if you missed the castoff you better wait until the next arc begins. Instead, just like a great campaign ran by a great storyteller, each issue is a great opportunity to join in for a great laugh. Rat Queens is just that great.

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Brother Lono (2014) Review

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STORY BY Brian Azzarello

ART BY Eduardo Risso

COLORS BY Patricia Mulvihill

LETTERS BY Clem Robins

After many years, we’re finally thrown back into the high risk ultra violence of 100 bullets. Brother Lono has been M.I.A. for a stretch of time and has taken shelter at a Mexican Catholic Orphanage run by Father Manny and a suspiciously sexy Sister June. Of course, what’s a Mexican crime story without a drug cartels, drug mules, bloodlust philosophers, and scantly clad maybe-not-under-aged hookers?

Just like any hard boiled story about reformed killers, it paces back and forth on the line between redemption and damnation. However, Azzarello’s writing doesn’t come off as forced or preachy. Instead, the diatribes flow more like deathrow poetry which stitch their way through the hyper violence. By the end of the series, Azzarrello and Risso madon for creative brutality made beheading’s look like mercy kills. Although the amount of suffering and death trivializes life and hope, it’s counterbalanced by the moral dilemmas; therefore, bringing the theme and nature of 100 Bullets back to life.

Although the story focuses on Lono and his redemption, his redemption is actually the burden of Father Manny. In the earlier series, a briefcase of 100 bullets was given to a protagonist to bring balance back to their lives, but it was always with a profound cost. Father Manny’s 100 Bullets is Lono himself. He’s given the dilemma between using Lono to defend the orphanage from the cartels or to save Lono from himself. In an act of weakness and fear, Father Manny lights the fuse and as the good book says, “Hell followed with him”.

The art style has matured a little over the years. The lines are a little more clean and the colors a little more polished. The beautiful contrast between the inky darks and the golden tans gave more depth and focus between the characters and their landscapes. Once again, the torture and blood shed was creatively sadistic. The women’s curvacious bodies all dripped with dangerous sex appeal. It was also graceful how Risso would ink iconic Hispanic street or prison art into the landscapes or bodies of the villains.

Not only is this a good tale for beginners to get a taste of the classic series, but also for old fans it felt like a fresh take on what had come before and is definitely worth picking up. What may sound like a classic anti hero tale actually slowly burned into a story about how desperation can cause irredeemable acts. In the world of 100 Bullets, there’s never a short supply of either; however, this struggle against giving into the fight is what makes these stories tick timelessly. It’s never a question of can you but will you.