Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN AND ROBIN, UNCANNY X-MEN, More

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Get ready for some reviews, as Best Shots hits a handful from the holiday weekend! So let's kick off with a break from "Death of the Family," as Brian takes a look at Batman & Robin #17...

 

Batman and Robin #17

Written by Peter J. Tomasi

Art by Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray and John Kalisz

Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

After all the heaviness of the “Death of the Family” arc, Peter Tomasi takes a step back and delivers an issue with no strict canonical adherence, no beginning or ending of an arc, and no deeper meaning beyond what it intends.

And we needed it.

“Life is But a Dream” is really three vignettes as Tomasi explores the dreams of Damian, Alfred and Bruce after their night of fighting crime is over. What he does beyond that, however, is show just how connected his characters are. Bruce obviously dreams of his parents but what keeps him connected to the world is surprisingly touching, if not all that unexpected. Alfred gets the shortest amount of time, but his dream is the one that shows how much he cares about his family, and the lengths to which he would go to protect them.

Finally, Damian’s dream is a mix of the best both Tomasi and artist Patrick Gleason have to offer. Emotional and torturous, Damian’s dream explores both his connections to the League of Assassins, and to his father, really illustrating the two directions in which he is always pulled. Gleason, inker Mick Gray and colorist John Kalisz create a perfect mixture of tone, shadow, color and mood, and dipping into the dreams is a showcase of all of their abilities. Gleason’s pencils are, of course, strong and sharp. In the more chaotic sequences, Gray’s inks really help keep the imagery clean (particularly ink Bruce’s dream), and Kalisz’s colors are the key to bringing the pages to life.

The overall color quality, in fact, is the real sell of this book. The blue that pervades Damian’s dream, particularly in the more harrowing moments, elucidates Damian’s emotional spectrum and his fierce love for both Bruce and Alfred. Close ups really benefit from the skills of the artists, and when Tomasi steps away from the dialogue and allows the story to be told through the visuals, the comic is at its best.

One-shot issues can be hit or miss, oftentimes feeling like dumping grounds for unused ideas or place holders in between arcs, but Peter Tomasi and co. really create a comic that while not crucial to the entire series, is still able to give readers everything essential about its characters and their connections to each other. Batman and Robin #17 is a fun comic which still runs in the same veins as its precursors, but it proves that the creative team can still produce quality work, even when the stakes aren’t high.

 

Uncanny X-Men #1

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

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

Letters by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

After just a few months with the X-Men franchise, Brian Bendis already seems more at home than he did after nearly a decade with the Avengers. Maybe it's just that his soapy, dialogue driven style is a better match for what is traditionally expected from an X-Men comic, or maybe he simply enjoys the idea of playing Cyclops and Wolverine's respective squads against each other. While the deep level of pathos he's evoked in All-New X-Men isn't quite present in his relaunch of Uncanny X-Men, Bendis still manages to turn a fairly standard "roll call" issue into a much more compelling dramatic fable with an unexpected if risky twist.

As a mysterious stranger lectures SHIELD director Maria Hill on the dangers of Cyclops's revolutionary ideals, we're treated to brief glimpses of some of the young, newly manifested mutants that Summers and Co. have recruited. Little is done in the way of characterization for these characters, though Cyclops himself, as well as Magneto, are given some moments to actually perform. Despite the necessity of the twist surrounding Agent Hill's mysterious informant, it does seem that a little too much time is spent in his presence as compared to time spent with the team at the core of the book, but the hook is strong enough to make it worth sticking around for the inevitable "getting to know you" moments that Bendis is sure to pepper throughout upcoming issues.

While Chris Bachalo and Brian Bendis have worked together previously, Uncanny X-Men may be their most effective collaboration so far. Despite the presence of three inkers, Bachalo's work remains consistent and readable, relying less on the large blocks of ink he usually uses to frame his pages, and more on his aptitude for exciting and still easy to follow panels, such as his stunning Sentinel spread. Bachalo's coloring, however, is a double-edged sword. While no one sets a mood like Bachalo does with his own work, there are occasional times when it's unclear how much of a given page is bathed in alternate light, and how much of it is portrayed in it's own color. For example, is Magneto's new costume actually black and white, or are his scenes lit for mood, just making it seem that way? Context clues make it seem black and white — a poor choice — but the color is so similar to the way Bachalo highlights scenes of Maria Hill and other characters that it's honestly hard to tell.

Now, minor spoilers: The final page twist is really what sells Uncanny X-Men #1. Having Magneto seemingly betray Cyclops is a solid hook for an otherwise unexciting issue, but in the long term, it seems a little too easy to be taken at face value. Setting up Scott and Magneto as the new mutant rivalry seems like a short trip for such a long road, and having Magneto's betrayal be a ruse is a little too expected to be shocking. If there is a deeper twist, or a more intriguing long-term game at stake, then his turning coat will be worth it. If not, while it isn't necessarily out of left field, it does seem like it's sacrificing more than its gaining to take the Magneto/Cyclops dynamic to this place.

Overall, Uncanny X-Men #1 is a solid issue. While it doesn't rank as high as the almost shockingly good All-New X-Men, the strength of its hook, coupled with Bendis's grasp on mutant politics and Bachalo's inviting art make this book a good bet, though it's hard to imagine Uncanny X-Men as the mutant flagship title. Only time will tell if Bendis can build on Magneto's seeming betrayal of Cyclops, or if this turn of events will descend into something more expected or telegraphed, but the strength of this first issue is enough to make finding out a worthwhile proposition.

 

Before Watchmen: Comedian #5

Written by Brian Azzarello

Art by J.G. Jones and Alex Sinclair

Lettering by Clem Robins

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

In Watchmen, Edward Blake was kept at a narrative distance from the reader. All of his actions were shared through someone else’s eyes, and this space made his immorality all the more shocking, especially because of the people around him. But in Before Watchmen: Comedian Blake is the narrative centerpiece, and therefore the reader has no distance from his violence, apathy, and sociopathic actions.

Because of this, we’re not given anything we didn’t already know. We get a bit more of Blake’s psyche through an ongoing conversation, but even this is a retread of his inability to see the human side of things. We’re not really appalled by anything Blake does in this issue, and when violence does occur, the narrative focus inhibits any revulsion, shock or disgust on the part of the reader.

When Azzarello finally does pull back and use someone else as a narrator, the comic gains a little bit of the distance that Alan Moore put between his readers and his anti-hero. Even when we were pulled into Rorschach’s world in Watchmen, we were already on his side. In Comedian, however, no such feeling was ever established and so everything Blake does is everything we’d expect of him. Comedian is an origin story, but one that doesn’t really give an origin. So in the final pages, told through a CIA report of Blake’s actions in Vietnam, we’re allowed to see things from outside of Blake’s world, and they’re horrifying.

Additionally, the character of Benway, a soldier who’s stranded with the Comedian in the jungle, helps foil Blake so that we’re able to see just how far over the moral line Blake has jumped. But Benway is underused and so even though the comic shows glimmers of depth, they aren’t enough to salvage the story.

Due to the excess of dialogue and narration, J.G. Jones is limited to a lot of establishing shots. He occasionally plays with the panel design, but sometimes this is only a matter of shifting an image so that it’s slightly askew. The moments for doing these have nothing to do with dramatic effect and instead seem more like an attempt to break up the monotony of the pages, which in turn only draws the eye more to the blank spaces around the panels.

Jones gets a few good close ups and in the final pages, he gets more of an opportunity to show his talents, but his time is cut short as a scene involving Blake ambushing a bunch of Vietcong soldiers ends abruptly with sound effects rather than visuals. But his focus on the cowardly Benway is a nice touch, particularly in how it establishes a human connection for the reader.

The final moments of the book bring the story back full circle, particularly Blake’s connections with the Kennedys. Azzarello attempts to add a sense of political intrigue to the story but again, we’re given nothing new, and nothing in this comic makes me want to see how it ends.

That’s the real shame of Comedian — even with a character as flawed and immoral as Edward Blake, Brian Azzarello couldn’t find anything to do with him except play off of his negativity rather than trying to explore and expand on what was established by others. And so maybe Blake’s apathy has rubbed off because I can’t find a reason to be drawn back for the final issue.

 

Avengers Arena #4

Written by Dennis Hopeless

Art by Alessandro Vitti and Frank Martin

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Not bad, Dennis Hopeless. Not bad at all.

Despite its youth-endangering premise, Avengers Arena continues to move towards a slow boil — which, I'll be honest, is getting to wear even on this AA fan. But the advantage of this book is that Hopeless is able to use a lot of tried-and-true themes for youth fiction and inject them into the Marvel universe. In other words, it's an oldie but a goodie.

With the last two issues focusing on lesser-known teen heroes, Hopeless brings us back to some classics: Nico and Chase of the Runaways. There's plenty of exposition for Chase, in case you didn't know who he was, and there's a nice little parable as far as distrust and the overuse of power is concerned. Considering this book is 20 pages, that's a lot of theme, which is good—because we're also four issues in, and this book is having the same issue it's predecessor did: it's not going anywhere. Right now, Hopeless has great characters, which is ultimately more important, and while the micro-plot continues to sketch out Murderworld a bit more, I also can't help but want more.

Artist Alessandro Vitti isn't a bad pick to fill in for Kev Walker—the One True King as far as this book is concerned—but objectively it is a bit of a step down. Vitti reminds me a bit of Jim Calafiore, in terms of his wide faces, but he doesn't quite have the tight angular quality that makes this a horror book in children's clothing. Reptil, for example, looks pretty goofy with his dinosaur legs, while an ominous entrance by X-23 is cut off at the knees by some erratic shadows. But the quieter, moodier moments of Chase reflecting do look great, and the colorwork by Frank Martin keeps this book at its usual energetic pace.

Unfortunately, character pieces won't pay all the bills, and Avengers Arena does need to pick up the pace if it wants to succeed where it's predecessor failed. That said, Hopeless deserves a lot of credit for giving these kids the focus and attention they deserve—this book continues to be the sleeper hit of Marvel NOW!, but I know it could be even more. This fight to the death needs to be just a little bit less bloodless.

 

The Walking Dead: Governor Special #1

Written by Robert Kirkman

Art by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn

Lettering by Russ Wooton

Published by Image Comics

Review by Forrest C. Helvie

'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

If I could rate the comic on the new content alone, it would have easily stood out as a contender for 9 out of 10… but considering that content only represents 20 percent of the comic itself, this issue is simply not worth the purchase for most Walking Dead lovers who are looking for a complete and new comic reading experience. It’s important to understand what sort of fan one is of the series before purchasing The Walking Dead: Governor Special #1. One might argue that this issue provides a comic fan with a similar one movies fans experience when upgrading from the theatrical release of a film on DVD to the extended edition: There are some additional minutes of previously unseen material, but the overwhelming majority of the film generally remains intact. While there are six pages of new content about the nefarious Governor from the first half of The Walking Dead, which hint at how he came to be the inhuman being readers encounter with the capture of Rick, Glen, and Michonne, the final 24 pages consist solely of reprinted issues that fans of the series have already read. And that just feels like a check being mailed in, or perhaps more appropriately, a fan’s $2.99 being handed over with little to show for his or her purchase.

The comic opens with the Governor and one of his people continuing to gather resources and build up their base of operations. He appears welcoming to the young man, and yet, readers will recognize the behaviors of this wolf in sheep’s clothing. We also gain some limited insight into what motivated him to become the person we originally encountered in his conflicts with Rick, and especially Michonne. Yet, this reveal ends just as the wolf rears his head before the unsuspecting innocent. It’s an interesting exchange as it hints at the possibility that the man who became the Governor was once human, too, and yet lost his grip on humanity without giving it all away at once. Readers will want to know more and keep turning the page to find out—something characteristic of the on-going series then as it is now.

Unfortunately, the issue effectively ends as the rest of the pages recap Lori’s rejection of Carol; Rick, Michonne, and Glen’s inspection of the helicopter and capture by the Governor; and the examination of how the absence of members of the party permeate throughout the community within the prison. This was all great writing…when it was originally published. However, it’s a bit of a bitter pill to swallow when considering one is really only paying the cover price for a mere six, albeit intriguing, pages worth of new reading.

Moreover, one of the hallmarks of The Walking Dead was that it rarely dealt with two-dimensional characters. Kirkman was careful to flesh out even the zombies, reminding readers of their once-human selves. Not surprisingly, there are clues and hints of the Governor having potentially been human at one point; after all, how else might one explain the “company” he kept in his personal living quarters? That these first six pages suggest this is not new or shocking, but it is a story readers of The Walking Dead would no doubt greatly enjoy exploring with Kirkman and Adlard—who seems to have lost no ability in recapturing the tone, look, and overall persona of the Governor in his artwork. The heavy inks continue to convey a sense of brooding that still permeates this series. But six pages is all Kirkman and Adlard offer readers as this story ends and a sense of deja vu sets in.

In all fairness, there are two points I should bring up. First, it is likely that this special issue is meant to help provide a bridge for fans of the series that have no prior experience with the comics upon which the television show is based upon. However, one of the aspects of the comics that set it apart from so many other series was the time and care it took to develop the characters. This “cram session” hardly allows for this sort of experience. Second, the added six pages — and hopefully far more to follow — would likely make for excellent supplemental material for inclusion in later printings of the series.

But unless diehard fans are absolutely for craving new material about this popular persona, it would be best to wait and see if a collected edition provides readers with only the new, original material and forgoes the reprinted pages, which do not really help provide any added insight into this enigmatic villain. And for fans of the television series looking to make the jump to the comics: Go find a copy of volume one of the collected trade paperback or the first compendium and start at the beginning. If you enjoy the show, you will appreciate the full story over the morsels offered in this issue. 

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