Best Shots Comic Reviews: BATMAN BLACK & WHITE 10/10, Much More

DC September 2013 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for the Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, as we kick off today's column with Rob McMonigal, as he takes a look at the relaunch of DC's Batman Black and White...

Credit: DC Comics

Batman Black and White #1
Written by Chip Kidd, Neal Adams, Maris Wicks, John Arcudi, and Howard Mackie
Art by Michael Cho, Neal Adams, Joe Quinones, Sean Murphy, and Chris Samnee
Letters by Dezi Sienty, Erica Schultz, Rob Leigh, Sal Cipriano, and Jack Morelli
Published by DC Comics
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Variety is the spice of life as we find Batman doing everything from engaging in a high-stakes drag race, becoming an unwilling test subject for a new technology, finding unlikely allies, and even living life as a zombie as Neal Adams headlines a stellar collection of writers and artists in this first issue of the new mini-series. With over seventy years of history behind him, Batman as a character and his wider world are open to a wide range of interpretation, especially when the creators are allowed to work outside of continuity.

Batman historian Chip Kidd leads off with a story that has the look and feel of Dick Sprang meets Steve Rude thanks to artist Michael Cho. Robin must use every resource at his disposal to find Batman, who’s gone missing thanks to a clever plot (and cameo) by the Joker. Guest-starring Superman, this reminded me of the old World’s Finest stories from the 1950s that DC collected in their Showcase books. It moves quickly, perhaps just a bit too fast as the solution felt rushed and left me wondering exactly why Superman felt Bruce was in peril. But the tone and visual style nails the second decade of Batman work perfectly, with Cho giving Robin just the right sense of determination and child-like fear and doing great work on the many close-ups on the faces of the characters.

Working entirely in pencil, Neal Adams begins his story with a chilling, full-page splash of Batman as a zombie, offering no explanation and letting the reader wonder just what is happening. Reading on-how could you not?-leads us to the discovery that when it comes to real-life problems like unfair foreclosures or extreme anti-drug laws, Batman is lifeless, able only to watch and increasingly deteriorate. Adams uses his amazing art skills to hammer home the fact that Batman can only solve problems that involve his fists, as he switches from powerful figure to a shambling horror. The ending show that Adams understands the need for Bruce to maintain his work/life balance, making me wish others did, too. This issue is worth it for the chance to see Adams’ raw pencils published in all their incredible power and detail.

Editor Mark Chiarello sensibly gives readers a chance to breathe next, with a lighthearted story featuring the popular duo of Harley and Ivy. Someone is poisoning the fast food in Gotham and putting the finger on unusually innocent Ivy. Batman takes a back seat Harley does most of the investigation work and the only issue I have with this one is that he really doesn’t need to be there at all. Writer Maris Wicks makes this a story of the wrath of the two super-villains mixed with a lot of visual comic relief thanks to artist Joe Quinones and it’s a bit weird to see Bats so calm about failing to stop them. But Wicks gives us classic Harley and Quinones’ smooth and curved lines are a good fit for a story with female villains, even as his detail work on the backgrounds (especially in Ivy’s lair) steal the show, as does a great final panel gag at the expense of Mister J.

John Arcudi and Sean Murphy show a human side to Batman as he gets into a bit of a battle of pride against a villain in a fast car and uses it an excuse to pimp out his ride. Murphy’s work looks right out of 2000 AD with stark, aggressive lines that feature just about everything coming to a fine point while Arcudi sets up a punchline that finds Bruce the source of humor for a chance.

Ending with a story that could only be produced in Black and White, Chris Samnee takes Batman into a noir-ish world of shadow, as Howard Mackie sets an oft-forgotten member of the rogue’s gallery on a quest for revenge. The story itself is okay, but Samnee just kills it in panel after panel of alternating white and black space. Taking a page from the work of Frank Miller in Sin City, he obscures almost as much as he illustrates, creating a vibe that’s both creepy and stunning.

The first Batman Black and White is still one of my favorite Batman limited series. So far, this new edition is setting itself up to be just as good if not better, and is a must-read for any Batman fan, making it my book of the week.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Superior Foes of Spider-Man #3
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Steve Lieber and Rachelle Rosenburg
Lettering by VC's Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

In theory, I shouldn't like this series as it has a number of things – on paper – working against it. First, its title marks it as yet another spin-off series based on a popular character. Second, the angle that the story takes is somewhat similar to that of Matt Fraction and David Aja's ground-breaking deconstruction of the superhero in Hawkeye, which presents a look at life behind the mask. Finally, it seems Lieber Rosenburg apply a somewhat similarly pared down, cartoonish style with generally flat coloring as Aja and Matt Hollingsworth. On paper, this should add up to a series that has no legs to stand on and is but another derivative title that won't appeal to readers past the third issue. And yet, what Spencer and Lieber have done so far defies the math and have delivered – yet again – another solid performance in this issue.

Probably one of the things I enjoy most of this series, and Issue #3 is no exception, is that Spider-Man plays no role in the storyline. The only real role the webslinger plays is to provide a common context for these junior varsity villains to get together and fall flat on their costumed faces. How many readers have asked themselves "Who the heck are these losers?!?" when encountering outlandish characters such Boomerang, Big Wheel, Kangaroo or Shocker over the years? And yet, that is exactly the premise that drives this not-so-super villain comedy. There is a real purpose to this story – not just an excuse to create another vehicle for a popular character to sell issues – and with it, Spencer has created something special here. It's a creative angle for a new series that doesn't rely on cheap tricks such as piggy-backing on more popular characters as a means of driving sales.

The second point to look at is the artistic style Steve Lieber uses on pencils and inks and Rachelle Rosenburg applies with her colors. The fact is the characters in this issue and series as a whole aren't the "sexiest," and by that I mean the overly stylized approach in which many superheroes are rendered – think early 1990s Image Comics with their over-the-top depictions of hypermasculine men and please-objectify-me women. So this is by no means a strike against Lieber. In fact, it speaks to his ability to know when to "dial it up" as a writer, and when it's more appropriate to use a more simple approach. These villains are not "sexy," that is to say the most appealing baddies out there. It makes sense then that the more subdued and straightforward aesthetic is one that works best. After all, Lieber and Rosenburg have the artistic chops to really blow readers away as they did in Alabastar: Wolves, so it's not as if they lack the ability to do more – it's a deliberate choice in style and it works. Spider-Man is the big name, so it stands to reason he will be far more visually appealing to readers. Boomerang? Shocker? Hey, sometimes it's just nice to get in an appearance.

Overall, this issue – like its predecessors – is just wrong. But in a good way. Don't believe me? The adventures of the head of Silvio Silvermane should prove my case. It's so absurd and outlandish that it's downright hilarious from Spencer's plot to the oh-so-serious facial expressions of Silvermane that Lieber creates. It shouldn't be funny as this is a serious crime lord who has never been the source of humor in the Spider-Man mythos, but the manner in which he is depicted in this issue underscores why this book works as well as it does. Readers who are looking for a series that combines capes and laughs need look no further.

Credit: DC Comics

Green Lantern 23.1: Relic
Written by Robert Vendetti
Art by Rags Morales, Cam Smith and Andrew Dahlhouse
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Villains have all kinds of crazy motivations for their actions. Sometimes they’re motivated by money, fame, revenge, or insanity. Other times, like in Green Lantern 23.1, they’ve seen some horrible tragedy and they’re motivated by a desire to keep the same catastrophe from every happening again.

Such is the tale of Relic, a new villain appearing in the pages of Green Lantern and a big player in the upcoming “Lights Out” arc. Writer Robert Vendetti uses this one shot to give readers Relic’s origin, providing the background needed for us to understand his desire to exterminate the Green Lantern Corps.

Told by Relic himself, Green Lantern #23.1 is a tale of ignorance run amok. In an alternate universe filled with lantern like beings, everything is in some way connected to a light source that, if overused, may run dry. Relic is trying to not only find this light source, but also see if he can keep the rest of the universe from abusing it to the point that it disappears.

But Vendetti’s attempt to build a motivation for his character only softens his impact because even though Relic’s universe eventually destroys itself, there’s not enough here to explain his desire to destroy the emotional spectrum. He’s not crazy to begin with, a close loved one doesn’t die, and he doesn’t ever show the anguish of his loss. This is due in part to the comic being thought boxes and very little dialogue, but mostly it’s due to the fact that Relic never appears, at any point, to be bothered by what he sees. Because while Rags Morales draws some eye-catching full page spreads, he doesn’t give Relic much emotion beyond splayed arms and blank stares.

Additionally, the characters that populate this alternate universe aren’t that dynamic. We see more diversity in the Green Lantern Corps alone that we do in this entire universe. Granted, Morales is a talented artist and the images he draws look great, but for a comic that spans galaxies, I expect to see more variety in character designs.

What really hurts this comic is how one dimensional its villain is. To be fair, Vendetti is trying to create a rich character history in the span of twenty-two pages so he’s limited by space, but the end result is not effective and Relic is nowhere near as engaging as some of the other Green Lantern villains like Sinestro, Nekron, or even Atrocitus. So while Relic is meant to be a harbinger of bad things to come, the previous pages make his appearance more of a whisper than a bang, and his entrance into the Green Lantern pantheon weak and dismissive.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Baltimore: The Infernal Train #1
Written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Art by Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Lindsey Morris
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Lord Henry returns this week, kicking off the fourth volume of Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden's latestBaltimore series, The Infernal Train. This three part mini is set up in post-war Europe, where the vampires that Baltimore himself let loose freely roam the streets, leaving a trail of blood behind them.

Baltimore has been tracking the vampire Haigus for years to no avail. He is now pointed towards Budapest, where rumor has it a priest is determined to kill him. Wanting to get such a nuisance out of the way quickly, Lord Henry ventures forth. Instead of finding the priest, however, he finds a strangely familiar train which carries the alleged cure to the ongoing epidemic in the form of "plague furnaces." As he delves deeper into the mystery of the train, he uncovers what lies inside, and immediately cleans out the city's armory in response. His actions catch the attention of inventor Lucrezia Fulcanelli, setting sinister motives into play.

Mignola and Golden craft a story that fits well within the bounds of Budapest circa 1917. Post WWI, every character is cautious, mistrusting. A very real feeling of fear permeates the book, which rises to a more panicked pitch as the story progresses. The narration is the driving force here, leading the reader around the city with a dark intent, circumnavigating reanimated corpses and weary soldiers alike. Lucrezia is molded particularly well, all high-necked Edwardian dresses and reflective glasses that never show her eyes, menacing everyone around her with no effort expended. The only negative is that even though this is the first issue of the series, a new reader would probably have trouble understanding everything going on. Reading the back catalogue is pretty essential to enjoying this story, and that's a shame.

Ben Stenbeck inks this book like he's done it a thousand times before. There is no stumbling through panels, no hesitation. Just a steady, confident effort. His character designs look as though he studied at the knee of Mignola himself, along with veterans like Arcudi and Bá. The bold lines coupled with the colors by the illustrious Dave Stewart ensure that this book remains snugly nestled into the ranks of its predecessors. Something that really stood out, though, were the few panels where the standard no-fuss, bold lines were abandoned for a more detailed take on a character. Baltimore gets a few shots with a heightened expression, as well as background characters like the watchmen and officers. There doesn't appear to be any rhyme or reason to it, but it's interesting to see a departure from the design canon of these books.

For a comic dubbed The Infernal Train, it has yet to be very hellish, but I'm looking forward to where this story is going. The majority of this issue was set-up, but the mounting fear and tension leave the distinct feeling that there are big things on the horizon. Check out this issue, but be sure to do the prior reading to get the full experience.

Credit: Image Comics

Reality Check #1
Written by Glen Brunswick
Art by Viktor Bogdanovic and Paul Little
Lettering by Rus Wooten
Published by Image Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

I like the premise of Reality Check. Glen Brunswick introduces us to his lead character, a struggling comic book writer named Willard Penn. Penn’s luck changes when he creates a Batman-like character named Dark Hour, but given his recent fame, Penn is struck with writer’s block and things go from bad to worse when his creation appears in the living room of his apartment. While the idea is intriguing, Brunswick’s fractured, erratic narrative makes the comic a cumbersome read and his attempts to show how much of a loser his lead character are make Willard more neurotic and whiny than a character in a Woody Alan film.

Part of the problem with the issue is how much Brunswick packs into the story. He gives us everything we need to know about Penn from his lack of luck with the ladies to the tragic loss of his brother to his big break with a comic publisher named “BLAAM!”. Additionally, we see inside a Dark Hour comic as Brunswick brings us into Penn’s work to give us a better understanding of the hero and how he’s connected to his creator.

But by squeezing so much into the story, Brunswick forces character development so that his own creation becomes the stereotype of the down-on-his-luck guy who never gets a break. Remember how much Sam Raimi made Peter Parker a loser in Spider-Man 2? Brunswick goes for the same feel with this issue, but at no point do we connect with Willard because his constant narration, his incessant need to report on every moment of his life, gets to a point of being distracting from the story.

Where the comic works is in how well Brunswick connects Willard and his created hero. Dark Hour is the guy Willard wants to be. While he spends part of his time battling silly villains, he spends the rest of his time trying to sort out his relationships because unlike Willard, Dark Hour is quite the ladies man. This kind of connection is lucid and interesting. The rest of Willard’s whining is not.

Viktor Bogdanovic provides some stylish art in the comic, reminiscent of Tradd Moore’s lithe, angular method in Luthor Strode. The comic portions of Reality Check are sharp, polished, and expressive. Characters move with with agility and grace. The only visual hiccups are in a flashback sequence where we learn about Willard’s relationship with his brother. Bogdanovic decided to depict this with smaller panels and black space but this results in a pinched look that lessens what is really meant to be the most dramatic moment of the comic. But this also makes the transition back to modern day more impressive.

Reality Check has promise. The creator meeting his creation is always an interesting angle, and given the type of person Dark Hour is and the type of person Willard Penn wants to be, I see a lot of potential in this story. Hopefully, now that he’s laid out the background and exposition, Glen Brunswick will focus on telling the story rather than trying to prove to us that his lead character deserves a break. Because while he know that Willard Penn is a loser, we still don’t care enough to see him succeed.

Unless it stops his whining.

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