Best Shots Advance Reviews: BATMAN #25, UNITY #1, SHAOLIN COWBOY #2

Batman #25
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Batman #25
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia
Letters by Nick Napolitano Published by DC Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

What keeps me coming back to Batman every month? I ask myself this question every month when I pick out the comics I'm going to spend some time reading and reviewing. Life is busy and my time is limited, so if I am going to invest my time into reading a comic (let alone reviewing it), I want my time to be well-spent. What continues to impress me about Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's "Zero Year" story arc is that it delivers a reading experience that reminds me of why I first grew to love Batman and that this is an iconic character whose story can be re-imagined in a compelling way for later generations.

There are key components that make up the Bruce Wayne – Batman dynamic: privilege followed by tragedy, grim determination taken with a dose of "theatricality," but ultimately, there is a sort of Thoreauvian desire to see justice served regardless of whether it is or is not sanctioned by the authorities. All of this is present in both the "Zero Year" story arc and Issue #25. We still see the privilege in which Bruce Wayne resides, and yet, it is the tragic loss of his parents that continues to haunt and drive this brash and bold version of the young hero. People are being murdered in Gotham, and the Batman emerges in response to these criminals. Yet, this is a younger Batman who takes pleasure in hot-rodding around Gotham and leaving the GCPD in his dust – something that would likely fail to register on the radar of an older, more stoic Batman. Speaking of hot rods, this issue also marks the debut of Greg Capullo's Prowler-esque Batmobile – something fans will be certain to enjoy seeing in action.

But more important than the debut of the Batmobile is the introduction of the first time Bruce Wayne appears in costume on and above the streets of Gotham. There are some nods to the original appearance of the Dark Knight Detective, such as the purple gloves as well as the ears on the cowl that were slightly longer and bent outwards that long-time fans will recognize. It's also interesting to see the Gotham Police walk in on Batman as he is investigating a particularly gruesome crime scene. An older Batman would have been long gone and never detected by the GCPD; however, this is an effective means of showing our hero is still learning the ropes without resorting to quick and easy exposition to tell us Bruce is still working on becoming a better Batman.

This creative team also makes sure to leave their own thumbprint on this origin story, particularly with the introduction of one of the villains in this issue. It's no secret that Poison Ivy would be making an appearance in this issue in some fashion given Scott Snyder's announcement at NYCC '13. However, there is another villain whom readers will not see coming, but whose name long-time fans of the series will immediately recognize. For my part, I'm excited to see how this character will be reinterpreted for a contemporary generation of Batman fans. Capullo's redesign certainly makes use of his past illustrative experience as he breathes a new sort of "life" into this villain from Batman's distant past.

Yet what stands out most for me in this issue is not the introduction of Bruce Wayne as Batman or the newly-designed Batmobile. Although these are fun elements, we all knew they had to come at some point. No, it is what Snyder is introducing into the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Lieutenant Jim Gordon. All too often, we as readers take for granted the cooperative nature of the relationship Gordon enjoys with both Wayne and Batman. In this story, however, there is a deep-seeded animosity planted between the two due to some involvement on the part of Gordon with the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne – something both Bruce and Jim are aware of but the reader is left wondering about. We know from past issues that the two will come to a mutual understanding and a working relationship; however, I can't help but wonder what Snyder found in either past continuities or his own imagination that could have brought Gordon into the picture in this light?

At the end of the day, Snyder's decompressed origin story would lose much of its strength if it were not for the artistic talents supporting his script. Capullo's ability to skillfully weave the various nods to Batman's past in ways both obvious and subtle into every panel alongside Miki and Plascencia's control over light and darkness, vibrant color choices and muted, somber tones all lend to a dynamic and compelling story. While there will inevitably be some readers questioning why there needs to be yet another retelling of Batman's origins, there are also fans seeking to understand how Batman's history fits into the New 52 universe. On a practical note, this storyline addresses that second concern; however, the fact that fans continue to clamor for origin stories speaks to our collective desire and need for better understanding the ways regular men and women became the heroes who continue to capture our imagination.

Credit: Valiant Comics

Unity #1
Written by Matt Kindt
Art by Doug Braithwaite and Brian Reber
Published by DC Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

My biggest complaint about company-wide crossovers is that they can create a barrier for new readers to enter into the grand narrative playing out due to a lack of background knowledge. Many readers may not be following every major title a company has to offer, and when the characters from those various titles are brought out, it can leave these readers left trying to figure out who's who versus immersing themselves in the story being told. So, I wanted to review this comic from the perspective of that new reader who has never picked up a Valiant comic before but decided to give Unity #1 a try.

Overall, Kindt does a fine job of weaving in background information about the main players: XO Manowar, the Eternal Warrior, Harad, and Ninjak that I rarely found myself wondering who each person was. There are still questions out there, such as what Harad's long-term motivations are behind his experiments that he shows to Gilad and we don't really understand much of Ninjak's past conflict with XO Manowar; however, none of this inhibits the storyline. One part of why I think this book lends itself to newer, unfamiliar readers is the approach Kindt takes in opening the story. The story is initially told through the eyes of a food journalist who is present for Aric's invasion and conquest of Romania. She, like new readers, is generally uninformed about these world events but finds herself a witness to them all the same – and this is something new readers would be readily able to identify with on a personal level.

Once the story gets underway, however, Kindt shifts over to following some of the other players working to bring Aric down. Admittedly, it's a creative story concept especially when taking into account the personality of the Visigoth peoples. They sacked Rome giving way to the Dark Ages, and so, it makes sense that if they were transported into the future and then returned to the present day, there would be little sense of fear on their part in terms of invading an advanced nation who was seemingly far more superior in nature than themselves. What also keeps this story from feeling overwhelming is that Kindt does not give into the temptation – yet – to present readers with an epic battle scene chock full of heroes locked in some sort of epic battle spread out over multiple splash pages and double-page splashes. There are some scenes with violent and graphic exchanges; however, this issue wisely spends its energies setting the stage for what is to come. More importantly, however, is the fact that we do not have every single member of the Valiant Universe dog piling into this issue, which would have otherwise become overwhelming for newer readers – and even more familiar readers who might see this otherwise engaging storyline watered down.

Artistically, Braithewaite and Reber deliver a comic that is clearly working within the vein of a more traditional superhero aesthetic, yet they do not fall into the stale trap of depicting beautiful people all of the same set of proportions in the same sort of pinup poses. The characters one might expect to look heroic do appear as such, but other people are presented in a slightly more varied manner. I also found that Braithewaite was able to underscore some of the more dramatic moments in his approach to panel and page composition, which can be seen in the initial appearance of XO Manowar or the foregrounding of Gilad during his flashbacks. Additionally, Reber's work on colors provides a consistently dynamic reading experience for readers as the action in the panels either picks up speed and pops off the page, or brings the reader to a sudden halt. I found this to be the case in one or two instances following an action-filled sequence where the backgrounds are softened and blurred in order to create a sharp contrast with the static and still image of a particular character or group of heroes.

Overall, I was impressed with the way in which this creative team was able to deliver solid, stand-alone comic using characters who have already begun re-establishing themselves in this universe. Moreover, I couldn't help but notice that this issue continued to deliver page after page of quality content as Unity #1 delivers an approximate 36 pages of solid story for the same price that many other publishers charge for only 22 pages – not a bad way to sweeten the deal. It also doesn't hurt that some of those pages include a short story from Robert Venditti and the artistic powerhouse Cary Nord (whose approach to the art in this story is both simple and yet exceptional) at the very end. So if you are someone who loves superhero comics or looking to try one out that is making itself open to new readers, Unity #1 is one title that shows a lot of promise.

Credit: Dark Horse

Shaolin Cowboy #2
Written by Geof Darrow
Art by Geof Darrow amd Dave Stewart
Lettering by Peter Doherty
Published by Dark Horse
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Geof Darrow’s Eisner Award-winning limited series Shaolin Cowboy, originally published through Burlyman Entertainment, has become the stuff of legend. It told the tale of a Shaolin Monk with a bounty on his head, who was naturally accompanied by a talking mule. Writer and artist Geof Darrow indulged his love of chanbara, westerns and an acute sense of the surreal to present a perfect storm of blood, blades and cheeky comedy. With the new Dark Horse series, his irreverent sense of fun cuts through the pages like a chainsaw through zombie flesh.

The stinger at the end of the first issue promised us “More zombies! More chainsaws!”, which is exactly what Darrow delivers in this unique second issue. There are no wordy introductions, or pages of self-aware exposition. There is nary a Wachowski sibling to be seen. Instead, the recently returned titular character takes to an inexplicable zombie horde with two chainsaws attached to a long pole. If one tries to look for a deeper explanation than this, you’re probably overthinking what might be the one of the most outright fun pieces of action this year.

A casual glance might cause readers to think that Darrow has merely repeated panel after panel of blood bedewed mayhem, as he deliberately frames the entire issue as one extended action sequence. Yet like most works in Darrow’s unique art style, every page is filled with tiny details that warrant closer inspection. A vertical slice has a completely different structure to a horizontal one, and the balletic movement of the central figure as he wades knee-deep in mindless meatbags is beautiful in its own right. Darrow uses the repetition to play with expectations, eliciting chuckles as one turns the page to see a row of heads pop off in sequence. Other pages are anatomical in their dissections, and around the halfway mark, we begin to notice insects crawling in and out of the saggy flesh, filling even more of the frame with detail.

This is a perfect example of the kind of art-driven storytelling that characterizes modern comic books. Enhacing Darrow’s fine line art is master colorist Dave Stewart, someone well versed in making the browns, grays and yellows of the undead seem like a veritable rainbow of shades. His knowing touch makes the primary colors of the Shaolin Cowboy, and his bright yellow chainsaws, pop against a sea of the undead. Faded tattoos are used to comic effect, including one of a ‘Stop‘ sign entirely lopped in half, and act as another set of Easter eggs to go back and revisit after you’ve begun breathing again at the end of the issue.

If you loved Shaolin Cowboy to death, but for some reason though it needed to dispense with the speech bubbles, this might be your dream issue. Yet that doesn’t stop Darrow’s distinctive voice from shining through, and we can almost hear Lord Evelyn Dunkirk Winniferd Esq. the Third commenting on the events as they literally tumble out before us. A wonderful mix of madness, massacre and melee, made merry by a mishmash of mutilation.

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