Best Shots Reviews: BATGIRL, AVENGING SPIDER-MAN, More

Happy Monday, 'Rama readers! Ready for a six-pack of review goodness? Best Shots has you covered, with this week's first column! So let's get started with Vanessa Gabriel, as she takes a look at the latest issue of Batgirl...

 

Batgirl #19

Written by Gail Simone

Art by Daniel Sampere, Jonathan Glapion and Marc Deering

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by DC Comics

Review by Vanessa Gabriel

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

For all the horror that Barbara Gordon has been through recently, a lesser person would need time to gather the pieces of their spirit. Batgirl #19 is not that story. With a crystal clear perspective, Babs is resolute. She has the kind of resolution that is character defining and echoes out to those around her.

Babs comes back to make amends with Alysia. To do this, she tells Alysia the goliath of secrets that has been her life. The Joker. Paralysis. A psychopath sibling. Those less bonded would turn and run. But Alysia has a secret, too.

It is the kind of secret that is a burden because she is afraid of what those she loves will think of her. It's as big as having history with the Joker. It's as big as being shot through the spine and recovering. It's as big as having a serial killing brother. At least, in this world, it that big. With Babs laying the cards of her soul on the table, Alysia shows her hand, too.

What blooms from this moment of shared vulnerability is a healthy show of love and a perfectly placed moment between friends. While Alysia has a small role in the Bat-verse as whole, her role as Barbara Gordon’s confidant is an important one for the character of Batgirl. This moment solidifies that. And if you consider the context, in the midst of the darkness and chaos of Joker’s reign of terror and Damian’s death, it’s even more powerful.

Then the callcomes and it is time for Babs to face her brother.

Barbara Gordon’s display of her signature compassion is starkly followed by James Gordon, Jr’s intense hatred of her. To go from a moment that is so healing for these characters to a moment that couldn’t be anything but awful is where the real power of this issue lies. These are two people born of the same parents, and their final face off is an immaculate yin and yang of characterization. Gail Simone’s writing is in full force for Batgirl #19, and it is an intense ride.

Daniel Sampere's pencils get the job done for this emotional story. He accomplishes the right amount of expressiveness and displays powerful perspectives and movement. But sometimes the movement is slightly overwrought. But Jonathan Glapion's superb inks give Sampere’s lines gravity that it needs. The art is quite right for Gotham City, there is nothing new or innovative here… not that there needs to be. Gail took care of that with her story.

It is the role of the super powers of our spandex heroes to inspire and drive hope into the story, but what good are those stories if we can’t find a bit of ourselves in there? What good is it if it isn’t telling the truth? Gail Simone’s Batgirl doesn’t need a metagene to be powerful because it is telling the truth. And it is wildly refreshing that this mainstream comic is walking the walk of progress in a most human way.

 

Avenging Spider-Man #19

Written by Chris Yost

Art by Marco Checchetto and Rachel Rosenberg

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

In a lot of ways, Avenging Spider-Man #19 shows what this book be... and also shows how far it still can come. Good artwork by Marco Checchetto saves this unambitious story, as Chris Yost sleepwalks through a team-up with tons of potential.

Pitting the sinister web-slinger alongside the alien dream-weaver known as Sleepwalker, you get the sense that this issue could have been a spectacular launchpad for a little-known character in the Marvel Universe. Not quite. Yost never really gets a handle on the character, so Sleepwalker and his alter ego are more just plot devices as Otto Octavius struggles to get his nightmare-fueled fears under control. And while there is one decent moment where even Otto's self-identity comes into question, it doesn't quite make up for a predictable storyline with no new twists to enliven it.

But the art I will say looks striking. Marco Checchetto, even when he isn't given much to do (and in this issue, he isn't really given much to do) still makes his characters look gorgeous and dynamic. The way his characters move and his panel layouts feed into one another reminds me a lot of Mike McKone, but with a much sharper edge. Still, Checchetto also has to run uphill because of some low-energy colorwork by Rachel Rosenberg, who makes the pages feel as sleepy as our protagonists.

In a lot of ways, Avenging Spider-Man is supposed to be a win-win — Spidey continues to hide his true identity from his friends, while Marvel also gets to throw some spotlight on some of their lesser-known heroes. Sadly, this comic doesn't live up to that premise, and it leaves both Spider-Man and Sleepwalker all the poorer for it. With one-note characterization and an easy plot, this isn't quite as superior as its sister title.

 

Sex #2

Written by Joe Casey

Art by Pitor Kowalski and Brad Simpson

Lettering by Rus Wooton

Published by Image Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

I dig the premise and the mood of Sex. I like the concept of a retired superhero living in a noir heavy world like Saturn, and the slow method of storytelling writer Joe Casey uses to play out the opaque past of Simon Cooke, the book’s lead character. Where the book fails, for me, is in its trite dialogue, pacing, and the use of its subject matter.

The mood of the comic is really owed to Pitor Kowalski and Brad Simpson who create some great imagery, but a lot of this work has nothing to do with the erotic nature of the story. Their best work comes in a scene where Simon, while reminiscing in his secret hideout, has a flashback to working with Quinn. The moment lasts only a few pages, but it’s truly the centerpiece of the comic in both its art and story as the conversation is tinged with rich history and loaded with foreshadowing. Kowalski uses shading well and Simpson follows suit with some impressive colors that create a morose and dour atmosphere.

Kowalksi’s other work is not as detailed, and character designs lose definition and detail at certain times. Simon and his assistant have a conversation, but neither one of them has a visible mouth. I know this is a small complaint, but it’s a noticeable distraction. The same can be said for some of the more racy imagery as the human anatomy is stripped of any definition in favor of blocky designs and a lack of form, almost as if Kowalski intended to make everything sexual look like a mannequin pose. But this may be an aesthetic choice on his part in order to undersexualize the art and therefore make a statement about human nature and the perception of nudity in our society.

The rest of the comic leaves much to be desired. A chase scene, planted in the middle of the book, comes out of nowhere and the order of the panels seems a bit jumbled. We’re transported from Simon’s story to this moment, only to be brought back into Simon’s story with seemingly no connection between the events. This concept is not new to comics — many writers do it. But the pacing of the scene is where I lost the flow. It’s like the ending of where several of the shots appear out of order.

I also had an issue with the dialogue. While I enjoyed the matter-of-fact conversation between Simon and Annabelle as they pass through a room of people engaged in a variety of sexual acts, I was more bothered by the words they used. They speak in dialogue tinged with sexual depth, but not cleverly, and their conversation borders on the kind found in dramatic romance novels, and step down from the kind of depth Joe Casey aims for in Sex.

Sex seems like the kind of story you could read anywhere, except that this one involves a more provocative subject matter, yet to what effect I’m not sure. I don’t see this as groundbreaking or daring; instead, I see it was using sex as a tool to pull in readers. I haven’t found anything that separates Casey’s story of a retired superhero from other stories with similar premises, save for its scandalous title. And as for what I see, that is currently its main selling point.

 

Superboy #19

Written by Scott Lobdell

Art by Diogenes Neves, RB Silva, Vicente Cifuentes, Rob Lean, Richard Horie and Tanya Horie

Lettering by Travis Lanham

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

DC's Superboy has gotten his fair share of retcons even before The New 52, and with this issue, Scott Lobdell works valiantly to tell the definitive origin of the Clone of Steel. While this is far from a perfect comic, Lobdell's big success is that he injects a little bit of humanity into this origin story, even as he packs maybe one twist too many into what has already been an extremely convoluted run.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Lobdell's story isn't even focused on Superboy as a protagonist. The narrator of this issue is the big bad known as Harvest. His story is... well, it definitely would take an entire comic to tell, so I give Scott Lobdell credit for diving in. Harvest reminds me a lot of Gog from that old spinoff series, in the fact that he's traveling to our present to hatch a big scheme to avenge crimes taken place in the future. What separates Harvest from ordinary bad guys is that he winds up also going native — Lobdell manages to slip in just a hint of sympathy for this guy, who doesn't just lose his firstborn son, but manages to bond with the living weapon that was going to be the tool for his revenge. It's that throughline of fatherhood that connects this issue and gives it its heart, guiding readers through what would otherwise be an impassible maze of continuity gymnastics.

Of course, there are downsides — this story is convoluted, and it took me several reads to figure out all the time-travel logistics involved (particularly since Harvest has so many surrogate children under his wing). The other thing that will make your eyes roll is that Lobdell is trying to tie a bow not just on Superboy, but also on , and that makes Harvest's plan seem not just ridiculously complicated, but almost hilariously so — with that many moving parts and intrigue, how do you expect to get anything done? Why worry about killing off metahumans with their kids? Why not just go back in time and kill Superman as an infant? Problem solved.

The artwork is an interesting thing to discuss, as well. This is definitely a rough book visually, but Diogenes Neves and RB Silva do look fairly consistent, even with two other inkers and two other colorists. Silva, in my opinion, steals the show, with some really emotive characters and a somewhat cleaner line than Neves. But Neves reminds me just a hint of Scott McDaniels, that edginess and energy to his art, and while the images themselves don't always make sense — again, he's just drawing recaps here, it's not Neves' fault Harvest suddenly mutates into this weird angel figure — but it doesn't leave you much to write home about, either.

Despite the bombshell on the cover, Lobdell actually winds up negating the impact of Superboy's true parentage by explaining (or over-explaining) the motives of his savior and his greatest enemy. Ultimately, however, this series might have needed that kick in the pants to set itself straight — we know who and what Harvest is, we know his motivations, and we now know his connection to Superboy. But with all this twisting and turning going on for the plot, it remains to be seen whether even this new issue remains inviolate for too long.

 

The Secret Service #6

Written by Mark Millar

Art by Dave Gibbons, Andy Lanning and Angus McKie

Published by Marvel/Icon

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Mark Millar loves big, explosive endings, and he aims for the same kind of finale with The Secret Service #6. It’s what we’ve come to expect of Mark Millar. But his tale of a troubled youth from the ghettos of Britain being trained as a super spy loses some of its luster due to a few silly and questionable plot points, and its focus on delivering an explosive finale worthy of a blockbuster movie.

The Secret Service delivers on being a climax. After the events of the previous issue, Gary is out to avenge his uncle Jack and stop the villain from destroying the majority of the world’s population. Gary saves the day and establishes himself as a hero, but the comic falls back too much on action movie tropes so that the story which felt original now feels like a carbon copy of every other action story.

Where we saw some clever dialogue and character development, here the entire focus is on beating the bad guy and setting up an ending that will lead to more Secret Service stories. I was most bothered by the saccharine climax where the weapon that would turn everyone against each other in a murderous blood bath has the opposite effect, leading to a conclusion that feels miles away from violence exhibited in early comics. I think Millar intended for this to be a hilarious and unexpected ending, but it’s a tonal shift from the rest of the series, and a major disappointment given how Millar built up the violence in earlier issues. It’s too “safe” of an ending for Mark Millar.

Dave Gibbons is the one constant of the series, drawing smooth and sharp imagery that depicts the action while never losing the clarity. The colors are a bit flat, though, and while this may have more to do with the finishes than any other technique, the comic is never vibrant. I can see moments where the story would have benefitted from stronger colorization, particularly in some of the fight scenes, so the decision to scale back on the visuals, again, feels counter to the expansive nature of the story.

The Secret Service is set up to be translated directly into film, and this extremely noticeable in this final issue. Millar created an interesting hero in Gary, but the comic’s originality is squashed in favor of an explosive ending that concerns itself more with action than story. This issue doesn’t destroy the whole series, but it’s definitely deflating.

 

Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness TP

Written by Roberto Orci and Mike Johnson

Art by David Messina, Marina Castelvetro, and Claudia Scarletgothica

Letters by Chris Mowry

Published by IDW Publishing

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The crew of the Enterprise explores the furthest reaches of Federation space, finding a moral quandary with no easy answers that could lead them into a war with the Klingons. With their faith in the Prime Directive shaken and secrets cropping up at every turn, young Captain Kirk and finds that within optimism lies layers of darkness in this excellent set-up series to the upcoming movie.

Regular writer Mike Johnson does most of the heavy lifting here, scripting out the comic based on a story worked on collaboratively with movie co-writer Roberto Orci. He’s already been tasked with shepherding the new movie versions of Gene Roddenberry’s Original Series characters for almost two years now, developing their characters in ways that the movie could not due to time constraints. I’ve been a big fan of his work with the property, and this mini-series is no exception, showing that some of the ideas Johnson has worked on (most notably that all may not be right in the Federation’s High Command) are going to impact on the movie.

Johnson’s stories uncannily mimic the pacing of the old hour-long episodes, and this one has the feel of a two-parter. We open with strong character development for this version of Spock and quickly move into a routine observation mission that becomes anything but as a shuttle is downed and the landing party find themselves in the middle of a Cold War analogue. It’s vintage Roddenberry, complete with a surprise appearance from a character whose origins begin in the Animated Series.

My only concern is that perhaps the plot is too grounded in ideas that younger readers only know from history books. I know the Klingons were the Russians in the 1960s and that is where we are roughly in the timeline now, but I can’t help wondering if perhaps an update would be in order. There’s definitely a feeling of distance for anyone who can’t remember having to practice drills under your desk in the idea that every disputed territory could cause a devastating war if it went the wrong way. I’m also curious if this means we’ll be seeing more of the Klingons in the upcoming movie.

That concern aside, this is a great story. It puts every character in the spotlight, however briefly (I love the comedic relief given by the idea of McCoy as commander) while moving the plot along. The resourcefulness of Spock and Scotty as the Enterprise faces grave danger really show that what makes Roddenberry’s world work so well is that everyone is essential and that both credit and blame can and should be shared. There’s also a cool surprise for long-time Trek fans that I hope we see again. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s say a cult recurring villain gets a twist that’s absolutely brilliant, and Johnson does it in the Abrams tradition.

Nothing against the other artists who rotate on the regular series, but I wish David Messina and Marina Castelvetro were the new permanent art team. If IDW’s Trek comics have a fatal flaw, it’s their tendency to pose the actors and have them talk at the reader. While Messina still does a lot of posing for Johnson’s speech bubbles, there’s a subtle difference in his placements that give a feeling of tension I don’t often feel from, say, Stephen Molnar, whose art gets the job done but doesn’t flow across the page.

In this miniseries, we often see characters placed to create vantage points, keeping the reader’s eye moving around the page. In other cases, the scene is drawn at a slight angle, providing a sense of motion. We see static scenes from a variety of perspectives as well. All of these tricks combine to make reading a far more enjoyable experience as a whole without sacrificing likenesses of the actors. You can easily recognize Quinto, Pegg, and the rest of the cast in Messina’s drawings without them being photo-referenced.

Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness is a great appetizer for Trek fans waiting for the main course in a little over a month. I’m not entirely sure how it ties into the larger picture just yet, but even if it’s only a small connection, the story itself is well worth reading. 

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