Best Shots Comic Reviews: BATMAN BLACK & WHITE #4, UNITY #2, More

Interior from Batman: B&W #4 by Michael Allred
Credit: DC Comics

Greetings, ‘Rama Readers! Pierce Lydon, here. Our fearless leader, David Pepose, is off wrestling emergencies, or alligators, or something like that today, so I will be guiding this carefully curated compendium of comic book criticism. We’ll kick things off with Rob McMonigal’s thoughts on Batman: Black and White #4.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman: Black and White #4
Written by Nathan Edmondson, Michael Allred, Lee Allred, Dustin Nguyen, David Macho, and Sean Galloway
Art by Kenneth Rocafort, Michael Allred, Dustin Nguyen, Ruben Pellejero, and Derek Laufman
Letters by Sal Cipriano, Michael Allred, Dave Sharpe, Travis Lanham, and Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Batman fights ghosts, old foes, and tedium in a variety of strong stories collected in the fourth issue of this anthology series, highlighted by art from Mike Allred.

When reading an anthology series, it’s expected that the quality varies from issue to issue. So when you get a set of extremely strong stories all placed together like this, it’s a treat for the reader. All of these stories were a lot of fun to read, especially if you are a fan of the days when Batman’s foes were not so ruthlessly bloodthirsty.

Nathan Edmondson and Kenneth Rocafort lead off, pitting the Dark Knight against a foe that’s seemingly supernatural. Bats doesn’t take to this idea, and ends up using scientific means to take down the culprit. Edmondson captures Batman’s dismissal of the supernatural perfectly while also nailing his voice, with lines like, “I don’t think I need a Ouija Board for you to speak to me.” Meanwhile, Rocafort shines in this black and white setting, working in ghostly grays for most of the story. He varies the shading, opting to make Batman more a figure of light than dark, and the level of detail is just incredible, whether it’s the grooves on the killer’s knife or drawing out every single piece of machinery down to its rivets in the lair of the suspect.

The art on the opening story is amazing, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Michael and Lee Allred follow up with a story involving the Mad Hatter being thwarted by the Penguin, who aims to take the money and run, leaving Tetch on the hook for the crime. The story has two elements—Batman’s battle against the Hatter’s men on top and the Penguin’s monologue, told newspaper strip-style, at the bottom. In the end, it’s Cobblepot’s own criminal quirks that do him in, in this light-hearted romp that would have made a great issue of Jeff Parker’s Batman ‘66

Mike Allred’s style on this one is to use a more Golden Age looking Batman, and the simple design allows him to let Bruce flow across the page, battling his enemies with fancy footwork, acrobatics worthy of Dick Grayson, and culminate in a great splash page when the two stories intersect. Anytime a reader gets a Mike Allred-drawn story, it’s a special treat, and this is no exception.

Staying away from supervillains, Dustin Nguyen’s story is just about a routine evening for the Dark Knight. He goes to Port Aparo to take out a weapons shipment, stops a runaway bus, breaks up a robbery, and ends by being so bored he walks right up to a terrorist and snips his wires. The piece isn’t exactly comedic, but I love the idea that even Bruce Wayne gets bored when the things he has to do are so routine — if you’re a superhero, that is. Like Rocafort, Nguyen’s art is very detailed, though instead of using light as his primary shade, this story features a heavier use of blacks to create the effect of a day in the life story of a very unusual man.

In his story with writer David Macho, artist Ruben Pellejero also works well with the black and white palette, but in his case, instead of blending the colors, his work contrasts them against one another, Mike Mignola-style. Down in the sewers, Batman fights Killer Croc while a down on his luck army veteran looks on-and tries to help. The fight isn’t all that special, but seeing Bruce put his counselling hat on while still working as Batman is a nice twist we don’t see much anymore and Pellejero’s visuals were my favorite in this comic. Given there’s an Allred in here, that’s saying something. His layouts, while a bit stiff, did work with shadows not seen in a Batman book since the days of Norm Breyfogle.

Sean Galloway closes the anthology by having Batman and a “Boy Wonder” style Robin rescue Superman, who’s gone missing. It’s designed to be an all-ages tale, which is a bit out of place, but the story works well, and it’s fun to see an animator’s take on the Dynamic Duo. Galloway’s figures are bold and bulky, with deceptively simple designs that make it easy to follow the action. There’s a lot of round edges, contrasting with the angular work of the others in the book, and the only issue is that this one is screaming out for bright, bold, color, though it works fine in grayscale.

Overall, this series continues to be a treat for long-time Batman fans, giving all sorts of creators a chance to put their spin on one of the best known superheroes in the world. With strong stories and some really amazing art, this one is highly recommended.

Credit: Valiant Comics

Unity #2
Written by Matt Kindt
Art by Doug Braithwaite and Brian Reber
Letters by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

I initially decided to review Unity #1 from the perspective of someone new to the Valiant Universe of comics, and I plan to do the same with issue #2. Admittedly, this is proving difficult as I am only reading the current Unity series and am putting a hold on any other Valiant books I normally follow to get as close as possible to the sort of "new reader" who is only looking to follow the main story arc – not the crossover issues. So I hope this review proves helpful for those of you deciding whether or not to jump on board … because you should.

Doug Braithwaite and Brian Reber aren't household names for most mainstream superhero comic consumers, but they are certainly making a case to be viewed as such given the quality of their work on this series. Sure, they are able to deliver those flashy action spreads that fans of the genre have come to love, but it's their ability to do so in a way that keeps the reader engaged that makes their work on the series (and this issue) stand out. Braithwaite never lets his readers' eyes grow tired of the same layout; instead, panels vary in presentation, and at times, characters fly through the panels towards the reader. This issue is all about delivering fast-paced action, as these two artists show readers the speed at which events unfold in the way they're able to blur the art within certain panels to parallel the vibrations the characters experience while in flight. Reber also takes advantage of the otherworldly virtual reality that comprises the computer controls of XO Manowar's Vine ship. The battle between Livewire and Aric not only plays out well on the page thanks to Braithwaite and Reber, but Kindt's method of resolving the issue's conflict made logical sense. Given the near-insurmountable challenge Toya Harada, Gilad, Ninjak, and Livewire faced in Aric, it was all the more satisfying to see the conflict resolved (albeit temporarily) without resorting to some sort of deus ex machina.

I don't want to get too heavy into summarizing the plot as I think that would likely spoil some of the enjoyment from this issue. I do want to point out one little narrative technique Kindt employs, however, that I felt did a really fine job of both closing out this issue and underscoring the stakes at which Harada and his team are playing for in this series. Kindt opens with a short caption that introduces the notion that all too often, the "tipping points" in history are rarely identified as such in that moment. It is only with the passing of time that we can identity these watershed moments for what they are. Is on the final page, however, that Kindt picks up this dialogue with the reader and reiterates that "it is rare then to find yourself IN a moment" and Unity #2 represents one such slice of history within the Valiant Universe. In many ways, it was almost reminiscent of the voice overs from The History Channel documentaries, which cover major events in history. Considering that's the sort of tone Kindt seems to be creating, it's a smart choice.

Is this issue worth the price of admission? Definitely. We are given just enough information about each character to avoid any confusion, but we are still left wanting for more. For example, Livewire is a loyal friend / subordinate to Harada, but there is a history of their having come to odds with one another that is briefly mentioned. Given what we see on the final splash page then, it would be hard to imagine not rushing to pick up issue #3 to find out what direction she will take. Once again, Valiant continues to deliver a solid storyline that newer readers can get behind without having to purchase multiple issues to enjoy one complete story.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Captain America #14
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Carlos Pacheco, Mariano Taibo and Dean White
Lettering by VC’s Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Nuke and Cap conclude their battle in Captain America #14 but the issue’s message brings to light some questions that aren’t easily answered. The Iron Nail serves as the main villain in this arc but with both Nuke and Cap spouting warring ideologies we don’t get a closer look at the mastermind. Instead, he exists as a flimsy, Mandarin knock-off that could be construed as based on our tumultuous relationship with China. Thankfully, the art keeps this one above water, though.

It’s not just Pacheco. Colorist Dean White turns in excellent work as Cap and Nuke battle in the snow. His colors bring their altercation to life, aided by well choreographed fight scenes. As the landscape is set aflame, we get to see White shine. Nuke’s grim determination to fight for what he believes through the fire lends a fairly obvious visual to the story but it’s extremely powerful. Pacheco’s expressions communicate the warring ideals between Cap and Nuke. While they’re brought together visually by the American flag and similar body types, they could not be more different. Cap wears the flag as protection. Nuke has it emblazoned on his face, a physical embodiment of it and everything it stands for.

It’s because of the strong visuals that Remender doesn’t need to beat us over the heads with the differences between these two men. Unfortunately, that’s what he does. Nuke is a product of Vietnam and the Cold War. He’s a relic. And while, conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have drawn many parallels in public perception etc., I’m not sure what Remender is going after. Cap comes from the Golden Generation but we know that war was gruesome. Nuke doesn’t idealize that war. He idealizes all wars. He’s a villain and not a particularly smart one. That Cap reacts with such an emotional response to Nuke’s “We lost everything” line seems somewhat out of character. If Nuke is a stand-in for war mongers everywhere, wouldn’t Cap recognize that and deal with it differently?

Falcon’s role is interesting as well. He chooses not to get in the way of freedom of the press and it may have grave consequences. But can Captain America really be taken down by bad PR? Is that the Iron Nail’s big move? We’ve seen Steve Rogers as a fugitive in the past. There’s got to be more to it.

The final showdown with The Iron Nail is still to come but the stakes surrounding their confrontation aren’t nearly as high as they should be. Remender has a lot of things falling into place and anyone would be a fool to believe he won’t surprise us with the conclusion of this arc. However, this issue doesn’t stand up. While the visuals do line up well with the message, it fails to provide more context for The Iron Nail’s involvement and Nuke never seems like a credible threat. The added nuance of Captain America’s public persona coming under fire is an interesting caveat but not necessarily a new one. We’ll have to wait and see how this one shakes out.

Credit: Comfort and Adam

Rainbow in the Dark: The Complete Saga Omnibus
Story and Art by Comfort Love and Adam Withers
Published by Comfort and Adam
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Created entirely by husband-and-wife duo, Adam Withers and Comfort Love, this collected work brings together the entire creator-owned series in one hefty volume. Broadly speaking, Rainbow in the Dark plants itself squarely in the Young Adult genre. The protagonists and most of the supporting cast members are adolescents who struggle against the oppressive and monstrous Veratu – a sort of manifestation of mankind's collective desires for safety and stability in the face of constant war and upheaval, which has in turn, subjugated mankind for its own purposes. The result, then, is mankind finds itself in a sort of stasis – known as the Gloom – where life is safe, predictable, and easy; however, it also devoid of the dangers and excitement of passion and true love.

Readers will quickly begin to draw comparisons to cultural icons such as The Matrix and the classic novel 1984 wherein characters find themselves awakened to the true state of the world and seek to overthrow the oppressive powers-that-be. In like fashion, the characters in this series fight to regain control over their lives and incite rebellion against those keeping humanity in check. One of the questions Comfort and Adam ask of their readers is whether or not these plucky teens will succeed in defeating the various monsters, the lethal Cleaners, and the monstrous Veratu who lead the forces of the Gloom. Ultimately, readers familiar with traditional, dystopian literature will recognize one of two directions this story will take: Either the good guys win but are left in a place where they must rebuild their broken world, or they've lost and the global machine of oppression grinds on just as it always has.

Given the hopeful, optimistic tone the book sets forth in both story and art, however, it is clear which direction the story is moving. Where the young characters come to represent life and passion, independence and individuality, the Gloom stands for monotony and apathy, as well as uniformity and conformity. This is made all too clear as the characters who are "alive" are represented in full color while those who are still held under the Gloom's sway are shown in gray tone – they are literally lacking a sense of vibrancy in their lives, but once freed from this influence, they begin to see and are shown in color. Given that this book celebrates the spontaneity and passion of life (and youthfulness) and exhibits no motivation to tell an otherwise different narrative, the outcome is never truly in doubt.

In this regard, I do think readers will have a hard time avoiding the numerous connections this series makes to other books, movies, and works of art. And that's not even mentioning the song "Rainbow in the Dark" by the 1980s metal band, Dio, from whom this series takes its title and inspirational message of struggling against one's inner darkness. On the other hand, there is a reason this narrative arc is so readily found throughout literature and art: It speaks to something about the human experience that many generations have experienced and continue to identify with as a part of their daily struggle. Literary and cinematic blockbusters like The Hunger Games feature a diverse cast of characters who seek to collectively resist the oppressive impulses of unthinking obedience to a higher caste, and that is definitely a central theme in A Rainbow in the Dark.

I also appreciated the ways in which this creative duo made a concentrated effort to tell a progressive story through the diverse range of characters represented: from children and teens to middle-aged adults and the elderly, as well as a vast array of different ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender types all represented in significant roles throughout the story. There is someone in this book for just about everyone. Just about. While the artwork was beautifully rendered, and these two creators pulled out all of the stops when it came to depicting the world and the characters within this comic, it's almost toobeautifully done at times. It could just be me, but I found it was a little hard to miss that while the world in which this story was set demonstrated a good deal of diversity, it was also a world populated by beautiful people. I might not have otherwise noticed had it not been for the concentrated effort to provide equitable representation in other areas, but there didn't seem to be too many "normal" body types represented (and by normal, I mean non-modelesque).

But this is hardly an impediment to the reading experience, and it really should be noted that the quality of this book from the first page to the last never once seems to diminish. It's easy to understand how shortcuts can be taken in independent comics when it comes to the art because the longer books take to publish, the more time and money they can cost the creators (not that this is excusable but I get it). Yet, I never once felt that backgrounds were simply filled in with a color in order to avoid having to draw in a detailed world for the characters. Facial details were attended to with the same care in a small corner panel just as they were in a half-splash or full splash. These might seem like little details; however, they are what make me see this book standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of something from Archaia, which is well known for presenting readers with some of the most highly polished comics in the market today and easily one of my favorite imprints.

The coloring was arguably the strongest artistic element behind this series, and in all honesty, it's probably one of the best-colored comics I've read all year. The use of grays in the world of the Gloom effectively evoked feelings of detachment and dreariness while their rainbow palette radiated a vibrant sense of life and excitement that helped differentiate the one state of existence from the other. I could note character progression often through simply noting the gradually increasing range of colors that were being used to depict them. While reading this series, I also continually found myself thinking that I would love to see these two creators working on other titles from both mainstream and independent publishers as the colorists. I suspect part of the success behind their coloring, however, has to do with the fact they were at the helm for both penciling and ink work, which preceded this stage of the publication process. In some comics, I find the texture and weight of the pencils or the amount of ink applied to the lines can overpower the colors in the panel – not so here. Likewise, I have seen examples of where artists have relied so heavily on the colorist to fill out the details of a page, which can lend to backgrounds that seem to lack definition. The art in this story, however, strikes that fine balance, and the result is a truly enjoyable visual experience.

Although Rainbow in the Dark makes use of a narrative arc with which many readers will already be well-acquainted, Comfort and Adam do a fine job of adding a brash and contemporary spin on this story that I think many younger readers (in body and heart!) will identify with and enjoy.

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