Best Shots Extra: BATMAN #17, UNCANNY X-MEN #1

 

Batman #17

Written by Scott Snyder

Art by Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion and FCO Plascencia

Lettering by Richard Starkings

Published by DC Comics

Review by Forrest C. Helvie

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Batman #17 provides readers with the much-anticipated finale for the “Death of the Family” story arc—the second of the Snyder and Capullo era of Batman comics. However, anyone hoping for some sense of closure from Snyder and Capullo is certain to walk away from this issue with the uncomfortable feeling they did not find what they were looking for…unless it was a story that is certain to go down as one of the greatest contemporary Joker stories in recent years. But be warned: This issue will prove controversial for many who bet on the wrong horse.

The issue opens with the Joker playing puppeteer with a bat skeleton, as Snyder continues to hint at a sort of pyscho-sexual tension between the Clown Prince of Crime and the Dark Knight. Once the darkness clears, the story picks up where #16 left off: The family finds themselves bound, gagged, hooded, and gathered around the table in the deranged banquet hall from hell with the court jester emceeing the festivities. Amidst all of the speculation over who does or does not die, be prepared for a few moments of surprise.

Before tackling the story, let’s look at the art. It’s true: Capullo and the rest of the artistic team know how to provide readers with that sleek, mainstream style of superhero art that drives some of the most popular titles, but don’t overlook the craftsmanship behind the polish in this gruesome issue. It is a truly horrific scene Snyder writes and Capullo translates and adapts this story for readers. Little detail is spared as readers encounter the bloated flies milling called forth by the rotting flesh on Joker’s face, while FCO Plascencia does not fail to remind us of its putrescence thanks to his all-too-vivid colors. We also notice the little ways the skin on the madman’s face shifts and requires readjustment. Things like this aren’t required, but they demonstrate the level of care and attention to detail throughout the narrative, and it certainly helps add to the tension. 

Not only does Capullo manage to keep readers hoping the mask won’t fall off, his ability to convey the shock, horror, and overall emotions of the Bat Family seem to hint at the same desire on their part as well. One of the challenges Thomas Hardy faced with playing the role of Bane in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was in having only his general posture, voice and eyes to communicate to the viewing audience, and he received a fair amount of praise for having successfully done so. We see much of the same visual storytelling from Capullo, and I’d recommend upon a second reading of this issue for readers to pay attention to the way he makes use of the characters’ eyes and body language to communicate their thoughts and emotions — since their faces aren’t all visible through the entire story. 

And speaking of faces… this issue finally allows Snyder the opportunity to lift the mask on the mystery of what Joker knows, does not know, and who actually dies at the end of the arc. I’m not going to spoil this for anyone who hasn’t picked this issue up. In some ways, Snyder seems to predict fan speculation surrounding the bets placed on the likelihood of each character being killed, as the Joker seems to comment or gesture in ways that lead the reader into thinking that the axe will finally drop on each character. Not only is Joker playing mind games with Batman but the reader as well. Of course, some might look at this issue and see it as merely playing games and not delivering on the promise of a major shakeup in the world of the New 52 Batman. 

In this regard, critics of this issue are partially correct. The conclusion to this story does not deliver the popularly expected results, nor are the effects of this story immediately evident. Some readers might find themselves asking how the ending of this issue was any different other story arcs of the past where good seems to triumph over evil. Was this all one giant cop-out? 

What is most significant about this issue — and the “Death of the Family” story overall — is that it has a longer-term picture in mind, and to be honest, this may not be a satisfactory answer for some. There are immediately disturbing aspects to what readers have encountered up to this point in the series and within this issue as well; and yet, there isn’t the sense of closure such as what reader’s experienced in past Joker stories that thrilled and chilled readers, such as Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, nor do we see a world-shattering event like the original “Death in the Family” with Jason Todd’s death at the hands of Joker. And yet, this is perhaps the most chilling element Snyder — through the Joker — injects into the Bat-family and fans of the series. There is doubt over the ramifications of the words Joker spoke to each young crimefighter in the dark, doubt over the relationship between Batman and the survivors, and perhaps most importantly, doubt over the relationship between Batman and Joker and that of social codes and those involved with upholding and breaking them. There is a deeper understanding and relationship between the hero and villain and the madness they both face, and the family and the reader are not altogether privy to this secretive knowledge. 

The joke is never really over and the punch line, it seems, is yet to come. In a recent podcast, Scott Snyder mentioned that he drew upon what he feared most for this story, and that was the notion of realizing the possibility of harm coming to his family but never truly knowing when it would happen. “Death of the Family” plays upon this theme and ends in such a fashion to reinforce the lack of certainty and closure that remains between Batman and Joker. Questions remain unanswered, and this will likely prove vexing for many readers. On the other hand, Snyder has already gone on record as stating he already has ideas in mind for the next Joker story, so the ending shouldn’t be all that surprising for fans.

While it is arguable that no creative team will surpass The Killing Joke as the definitive contemporary Batman-Joker story, nor will many Batman creators be able to lessen the poignancy of the image of a defeated Batman cradling the dead Robin in his arms after arriving moments too late, it is clear Snyder and Capullo have carved out of a name for themselves in this tradition with “The Death in the Family” from the maniacal schemes to the lingering presence of the Clown Prince of Crime even after his departure.

 

Uncanny X-Men #1

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by Chris Bachalo, Tim Townsend, Jaime Mendoza and Al Vey

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Brian Michael Bendis has started off his run on the X-Men with a bang, creating a gorgeous, character-driven opener with All-New X-Men. But if you haven't read that, fear not — Bendis has another easy entree point ready for you with Uncanny X-Men, which focuses exclusively on mutant revolutionary Scott Summers and his band of X-fugitives. The only problem with this is that it almost does its job too well — new readers will be mostly brought up to speed, but those who were already on-board might find this issue a little too familiar for its own good.

The big switchup here, of course, is Chris Bachalo. Bachalo isn't nearly as new reader-friendly as Stuart Immonen or powerhouse David Marquez, but he has a harsh, angular line that makes his cartoony characters seem that much more menacing and powerful. Watching Sentinels tear up the pavement is a great image, as is Magneto turning some metallic shrapnel into some deadly-looking arrows.

For the most part, Bachalo is actually pretty restrained with his layouts and his detail work, keeping it from overwhelming the reader's eye with extraneous debris. That said, there is one hiccup, namely a new mutant whose powers are actually somewhat confusing to watch — I'm assuming those are energy spheres like Speedball, as opposed to making spontaneous balloons?

This comic is also paced verrrrrry differently than the typical Bendis jam. I don't mind that. He dives into the action quickly, and most importantly, he brings readers quickly up to speed: Cyclops may be hailed as mutant Che Guevara by the public, but he has also lost control over his powerful optic blasts. This one-time Extinction Squad may be more bark than bite these days, but I will be the first to admit that these revelations were a bit more heartfelt during All-New X-Men, when Bendis was showing more than telling.

Still, Bendis has some decent narrative tricks up his sleeve, which continue to draw interest—namely, there's some double-dealing going on from within Cyclops's team, and I'm hoping the identity of this traitor might have a few more twists and turns, Spider-Woman-style. Bendis's dialogue is also remarkably restrained this issue, as opposed to the rapid-fire Mamet-style dialogue of books like Ultimate Spider-Man and New Avengers. By really holding back, Bendis has actually given his characters a stronger voice.

The big challenge that Uncanny X-Men needs to accomplish is that it needs to distinguish itself from Bendis's already spectacular debut—right now, there are two Scott Summers in play, and it's up to Bendis to convince us that there's enough room in this world for the two of them. Now that the stage has been set, Bendis has an opportunity to tell a sharper, harder Uncanny X-Men than we've seen in awhile—and I'm definitely looking forward to it.

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