Best Shots Extra: BATMAN & ROBIN, WOLVERINE & X-MEN, More

 

Batman and Robin #14

Written by Peter Tomasi

Art by Patrick Gleason, Tomas Giorello, Mick Gray and John Kalisz

Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

When I started reading this week's issue of Batman and Robin, I was instantly bowled over. Quick cuts, hints of menace, flashes of blood red across the page, watching the Dark Knight tear through a rampaging crowd like a one-man riot squad... I was pretty much convinced that if Batman was the flagship book and Detective Comics was the villain-centric crime comic, then Batman and Robin was the rock 'em, sock 'em, pitch-perfect fight comic.

And then the artists switched up.

Don't get me wrong, this book still rocks — this might be Patrick Gleason's best issue, to be honest — but it's also a victim of physical endurance and sheer timing. For whatever reason, Gleason could only draw half this book, and the shift between he and Tomas Giorello really hampers the book. That said, even with this visual transition, the good far outweighs the not-so-great, as this comic deftly balances family and fisticuffs for a satisfying issue.

Pitting Batman against a horde of cannibals immediately plays to Peter Tomasi's gorier side, but also amps up the pacing for much of this comic. This sort of conclusion is tailor-made for fast and furious combat, and boy does this book deliver. Yet Tomasi also remembers to keep the true heart and soul of this comic intact — it's about fathers and sons, and the actual conflict between Bruce and Damian makes plenty of sense for both sides. It's interesting to see the subtle way that Damian is morphing into a hero here, but it's also heartbreaking to see just how desperately he wants his father's approval.

And the art. Well, it's either totally awesome, or distressingly old school. Gleason keeps everything moving swiftly, whether it's the silhouetted figures of the Dynamic Duo laying the smackdown on a pack of crooks or Batman crashing through a skylight before pumping an entire crowd of man-eaters full of tranqs. There's a lot of smart cinematic choices to his composition, where he chooses to focus, the horror-tinged far-too-much details he gives some of these faux zombies...

...So it's a bit of a disappointment to see Tomas Giorello take over midway through. He reminds me a lot of Tom Mandrake, sort of drenched with hatched shadows and sort of these longer, droopier faces. Don't get me wrong, it very much works in the traditions of Jim Aparo or Klaus Janson, but after Gleason's sleek, kinetic style, it comes off as remarkably low-energy. The sort of instant expressiveness that Gleason puts on Damian's face, for example, is nowhere to be seen in the middle of the book, depriving Robin's subplot of some needed humor and likability.

Even so, this comic doesn't need a flimsy "Death of the Family" tie-in to make it fantastic. Peter Tomasi and company open this comic up with a bang, and it doesn't let up for a second. For Patrick Gleason, this is some of the best work he's done in ages; for Tomas Giorello, he's in the unenviable position of following a top-tier powerhouse. Regardless, if you're looking for a smart, stylish beatdown in Gotham, Batman and Robin is the place to find it.

 

Wolverine and the X-Men #20

Written by Jason Aaron

Art by Steve Sanders and Frank D'Armata

Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

As far as fill-in issues go, Jason Aaron makes the best play he can with Wolverine and the X-Men #20, focusing less on the bustling school he left dangling over a cliffhanger and instead doubling down on a character with some serious loose ends. While the artwork definitely has some flaws, Aaron builds up the amnesiac Angel further, stirring up some potential in the character's erratic path.

With mutantkind restored in the wake of Avengers vs. X-Men, Aaron's got even more room to maneuver with this series — indeed, the Jean Grey School is needed more than ever. And no one is more about preaching the faith than Warren Worthington, whose death, rebirth and subsequent amnesia have left him a little... well, religious-minded. Eager to act as mutant missionary and shepherd all these new Children of the Atom to Wolverine's school, Angel's meeting with a girl with shark-like tendencies quickly gives way to a fight sequence with Mystique and the new Silver Samurai, two loose ends from Aaron and Sanders' finale on Wolverine.

While Aaron's attempts at injecting humor through Angel's homilies gets old to the readers as well as bystanders in the story, where he succeeds is in his expansion of Warren's mythology. More powers haven't been the solution in the past when it comes to reinvigorating Warren's character (see Chuck Austen, see healing blood), but Aaron ties in Rick Remender's Uncanny X-Force to give some explanation — and some limits — to Angel's new abilities. It adds a bit of tension to what is otherwise a fairly standard fight comic.

I probably say that "fairly standard" part because of the art. First and foremost, I'll be the first to admit that we've been spoiled by some of the superb artists on this book — Nick Bradshaw, Chris Bachalo, I'm looking at you — so when the kind of fine-tuned expressiveness and panel layout isn't there, you notice. But particular to Steve Sanders is his self-inked work is surprisingly clunky — his lines are just too think, almost posterized, and it doesn't just hamper the expressiveness, it actually slows your eyes down. While I like his iconoclastic take on the Beast (and I'll admit I'm in the minority on that one, as one of the few who read S.W.O.R.D.), but his design of the new Shark Girl is just not very stylish. To be honest, it reminded me of one of the villains from the '80s Ninja Turtles cartoon.

While the art disconnect brings this book down, fans of Angel should have enough to make this issue of Wolverine and the X-Men a worthy purchase. Jason Aaron may only succeed in making one out of his two main characters interesting — sorry, Shark Girl, even taking down Mystique isn't going to cut muster without stronger characterization — his cliffhanger and his care with Warren Worthington brings this book in for a decent enough landing.

 

Evil Ernie #2

Written by Jesse Blaze Snider

Art by Jason Craig & Marcio Menyz and Adriano Augusto

Lettering by Troy Peteri

Published by Dynamite Entertainment

Review by Deniz Cordell

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The second issue of Evil Ernie is, compared to its predecessor, a bit problematic. The sharp narrative focus that characterized the first issue is softer here, the storytelling a little looser — a trait which also carries over into this issue's artwork, which is a bit more stylized, and smoother at times. In addition, those softer moments of genuine humanity which brought the first issue a much needed warmth are, with few exceptions, done away with here — we're now firmly entrenched into the horror milieu — though this issue, in contrast, seems to be torn more from the page of films like Halloween and its hunt-and-kill derivatives. So, instead of the more subtle shades of dread from the first issue, Snider and Craig give the reader a series of gruesome deaths — all building to the moment when the resurrected Ernie confronts his foster father, a nasty customer in any book.

The book opens with a brief flashback to Ernie's childhoo; further constructing the relationship between Ernie and foster dad Buford, broadly showing the trying conditions of Ernie's growing up. It's a scene built around sex and sadism, and it, surprisingly, works rather well. It's not the actions themselves, but the utter gratuitousness of those elements that paint a clear portrait of who Buford is. The development of the antagonist, and making him as reprehensible as possible is important in a book like this, where our ostensible hero is, himself, not really on the side of the angels - and it's a facet that's done smartly.

Also done well is the interplay between Ernie and his sentient pin "Smiley." It captures a wryer, more acerbic edge to the action, and provides a humorous, sometimes cynical, counterpoint to the unfolding terrors. Granted, "Smiley" exists primarily as an attitude, and as a device for Ernie to relate to, but it serves that purpose well, allowing for further development of Ernie's voice and situation.

Jason Craig's layouts are inventive — organic in terms of the way he overlays actions, and allowing for certain elements to interact between panels. For the most part, he favors using two-page spreads, lending a wider canvas and constant sense of shifting motion to the action, which opens things up greatly. The coloring work by the team of Marcio Menyz and Adriano Augusto is fine - lending a diffuse green glow to Ernie, and making the viscera suitably red - and they work well given the restrictions of a fairly monochromatic, nighttime setting.

One of the niftier elements in the book is when we are given to visions of the world as perceived by Ernie. Of particular note are the presence of sins emblazoned on certain peoples foreheads. It's a facile "instant characterization" gimmick that isn't overused here. Craig's artwork ably creates these "demonic" versions of characters, while maintaining a sense of their "real world" appearances. However, I must point out that at one point, the word "treachery" is misspelled on one such figure - at first, I thought perhaps it was part of the effect, and that each perceived sin would have some kind of typo, further emphasizing Ernie's somewhat unhinged mind, but alas, it was just a matter of oversight - though it did briefly take me out of the book.

Snider carefully places more pieces on the board - including the development of a priest who will likely play a large part down the road, as well as further explication of Ernie's ultimate goal (the killing of his six-hundred-and-sixty-sixth sinner, and what will then follow), the nature and extent of his powers - and it's all integrated well into the story - but the main brunt of the issue deals with Ernie's violent pursuit of Buford, making all other matters secondary.

Lurking behind all of the grisly mayhem is a basic question: "What constitutes a good person?" As Ernie himself asserts just before vaporizing someone, "I'm not evil," and if this is true, then what precisely is he? Snider sets up a series of escalating questions to go with his horror story, and it's a wise idea - as it provides a greater moral spine to build everything off of. Of course, there is also a final one-liner that acts as a sly wink to the nature of the medium, and provides a light note to end an otherwise grim issue on.

One final thing I meant to reference in my review of issue one, the setting of "Widmark Maximum Security Prison" drew a smirk from me - whether an intentional reference to the great Richard Widmark (a favorite actor of mine) or not, I'd like to think it is - after all, Widmark himself played his fair share of fascinating terrors. Evil Ernie #2 is quite good, and has much going for it — horror fans who like the genre unremittingly dark and gruesome will love it, but for me, I'm hoping the story moves away from its litany of deaths, and comes back into focus — emphasizing the more operatic, human qualities that Snider nurtured in the debut issue.

 

Hopeless, Maine Vol 1: Personal Demons

Written by Tom and Nimue Brown

Art by Tom Brown

Published by Archaia

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Being a young woman is hard enough under any circumstances, but when your father raises demons and your mother wants to kill you, perhaps an imaginary friend — no matter how cruel — is better than nothing. With danger and unkindness at every turn, not even having a few powers of her own may be enough to save Salamandra from worse torments. Darkness reigns in Hopeless, Maine in this trade collecting the start of the webcomic by Tom and Nimue Brown.

There are a lot of stories that have similar concepts to Hopeless, Maine, which means you have to work very hard to stand out. The idea of a young adult on a journey of discovery is almost as old as the written word, if not older. Setting the idea in a land of fantasy has exploded after J.K. Rowling took a certain wizard to school. As long as people sit down to the keyboard, there will be stories told of discovery, loss, and learning.

What makes Hopeless, Maine move out of the pack is a combination of smart writing that gives the story a lost-in-time feel that fits its setting and absolutely stunning artwork from Tom Brown that perfectly nails the mood. While others might have opted to put modern speech in the mouths of the children and adults (and other spirits) that haunt Hopeless, the Browns instead keep things feeling just a bit archaic, showing that this island really is cut off from the mainland. There aren’t televisions or the Internet or slang words fighting for space with bug-like creatures who want to cuddle you (to death), seemingly endless tombstones, and flashing effects of magic. The characters in the Browns’ world got lost sometime between Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and nothing distracts from that premise.

Though the art and story evoke memories of Victorian writers, this is by no means a stilted and restrained comic, nor is its female protagonist trapped in a male-dominated world. The Browns give her an independent spirit, and show that sometimes making adult decisions have adult consequences. (Best of all, the struggles Salamandra faces, which culminate in confronting a quite literal personal demon, all fall organically within the story.) It is a witch who helps out at key times, and ultimately only Salamandra can move past her own sorrow. She has a male friend, but he doesn’t solve all her problems. This is a female protagonist who has as much control as a girl her age can be realistically given.

The story is positive, but the art is what makes this comic sing. It’s so nice as a reader to just enjoy a gothic feel without being caught up in the modern interpretations of the term. We get to be absorbed in buildings seemingly created only to be the stuff of nightmares, seas that hide ominous creatures, trees that appear to be clinging to life only out of spite, and an entire world that must rely on lamps and moonlight to live by. There’s a feeling of dreariness that overpowers the reader as they see everything muted by air of fog, within which lurks uncertain dread. All of the art is in low tones of browns and grays and blacks, with only a few touches of color that stand out when we see them.

Yet for all this bleakness, there’s no overt horror. A ghost is given a really creepy visual effect and some demons look suitably abhorrent, but nothing here is shocking, which really impressed me. The goal here is to create a mood, not to cause a stir. The effect is awesome, as even the speech balloons are tinted to prevent distraction. My only complaint with this choice is that it means we sometime have a sameness in the characters themselves, with only a few changes in dress or eye shape to distinguish them. I had a few situations where I had to check back to see who was speaking to Salamandra, but that’s a minor quibble.

Hopeless, Maine mixes the modern trend of taking a girl on a journey to find herself with a classic Victorian mood, and the result is a comic you want to read, out loud, by a campfire, showing the pictures around to others. For fans of gothic storytelling, this is a must-buy this week. 

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