Best Shots Comic Reviews: X-FORCE #3, BATMAN #30, More

Marvel previews for April 16, 2014
Credit: Marvel Comics

Happy Monday, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has your back, with a handful of the week's biggest books! So let's kick off today's installment with Jocular Justin Partridge, III, as he takes a look at the latest issue of X-Force...

Credit: Marvel Comics

X-Force #3
Written by Simon Spurrier
Art by Rock-He Kim
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Comics exist in a sort of hyper-reality. The problems and struggles that we face in our everyday lives, while represented in comics, usually are filtered through an exaggerated lens in order to make them more relatable to the characters that are going through them. No comic has embraced this truth more than X-Force. From its inception, X-Force has gleefully given us stories chocked with ultraviolence, overt sexuality, and exaggerated physiques. Though it may seem paper-thin on the surface, some writers have begun to use this gory platform to tell mature and nuanced stories, with themes including duty, loss, acceptance, and frailty. Take Simon Spurrier's modern-day run as an example: Betsy Braddock is an addict, but she isn’t addicted to anything that you or I would be addicted to. Thus X-Force #3 uses this bloodstained platform to tackle the subject of addiction and recovery with a heaping helping of viscera and droll wit.

X-Force #3 finds our resident black ops team one step closer to confronting the man responsible for The Alexandria Incident, but like most of his work, Simon Spurrier dovetails this main narrative into some truly affecting character work. In this issue, Psylocke takes center stage as she struggles with her deep seeded desire to kill. Spurrier also contrasts her life as a mutant superhero in the pages of Brian Wood’s X-Men with her off-the-books activity in this title, highlighting her struggle all the more. As a member of a premier superteam, Betsy is held to a higher standard, and as a mutant, doubly so, but as a member of X-Force, those limits aren’t imposed on her by anyone but herself. This is an interesting internal dynamic for Betsy, and it quickly establishes her as a character that is as interesting as she is overlooked. This is a story of recovery, addiction, and relapse beamed through the prism of superhero comics. Simon Spurrier isn't a writer that is comfortable just presenting a story about a bunch of people traipsing around the world dressed in fetish gear punching evil-doers in the head in the name of justice. These are highly flawed and complex characters trying to come to terms with the terminally gray world in which they live, all while trying to protect their own kind and make peace with their own shortcomings and pasts. This, in essence, is what the title of X-Force is all about. The stories starring this mutant kill squad may lean more toward the bleak and insane, but at their heart they are about all too human problems and shortcomings.

While Spurrier allows Psylocke to take the main focus of this issue, this isn’t to say that the rest of the team gets the short shrift or that the main story is hampered due to the character work. Betsy’s narrative meshes fairly well with the larger investigation into the Alexandria Incident, culminating in a bloody cliffhanger that puts Cable and his band of killers right back where they started. Simon Spurrier also shows that his trademark humor is still very much intact in the pages of X-Force in the form of a running gag about Marrow trying not to curse. It's little bits of wry hilarity like this that show why Spurrier is the right writer at the right time for X-Force. These people may be damaged, but Spurrier never treats them that way. He allows them to still be fractured while still showing readers how and why they work well together as well as why their cause is important. They may be blunt objects, but they are blunt objects with a very clear and concise purpose.

I completely understand why some people are turned off by Rock-He Kim’s artwork, but allow me to provide an explanation of why I like him so much. X-Force has long been defined by the over-the-top visuals of artists like Rob Liefeld, Jerome Opena, Clayton Crain and Mike Choi. And like those loud, sometimes flawed names before him, Rock-He Kim is a visual voice unlike any other and is a breath to fresh artistic air into the title. Kim opts for a muted color pallet and alternates between intimate panel depth and wide action shots. Kim goes in much more for mood than bombast, heightening the tension of certain scenes and hammering home the emotion of others. His work is murky without being muddled, and moody without being outright dour. Comparatively, Kim is more in line with a Jerome Opena than a Clayton Crain, yet his work still feels completely different than either one of them. For a book that's always been defined by its visuals more than its nuance, Kim has built a loud, swaggering foundation for Spurrier to work with, and while he doesn't always stick the landing, Kim's risky style makes him a joy to watch.

Take, for instance, the detached panels of Betsy on a mission with her all-female squad. These panels are rendered coldly and set further away from the action than what we are normally used to seeing in regards to action scenes. Betsy is expressionless and going through the motions of daring do, still aching to dispense bloodthirsty justice. Kim gives us a clear understanding of Psylocke's mindset out in the so-called “normal" world of a superhero. It's the lonely life of a recovering addict. She knows what she is supposed to do and how she is expected to live her life in the sun, but she is just counting down the hours until the night shift starts. When she finally gets to clock on with X-Force, the panels become wider, more open, using the space of the enviroment, while the action is shown in closer, more intimate detail. Betsy’s expressions liven and she at least shows more on her face than stolid contempt, illustrating that Betsy's world becomes more alive when she's hiding something. Its a subtle shift in perspective that makes all the difference in the world in terms of character. X-Force may have started as an in-your-face power fantasy romp through the muck of the X-Men universe, but Rock-He Kim has shown that its more than capable of telling layered cinematic stories with weight amidst the crazy.

The world needs X-Force and more than that, the members of X-Force need X-Force. Betsy Braddock has a problem but yet, she can’t bear to stay away. Nathan Summers has nothing but the mission so he channels his focus through X-Force. Marrow doesn’t have anywhere else to go but she has found a calling and place along side her own kind helping her people. The X-Men line has always been a place where writers and artists can tell a wide range of stories about a myriad of human behavior through the lens of superhero action. X-Force may, on the surface, just appear to be about a bunch of grunts cutting a bloody swath through the enemies of mutantkind, but if you are willing to dig a bit deeper, its about much, much more.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #30
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Brendan McGuirk
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

People often throw the word “icon,” around, but for me, Batman is a total pop star. While an icon is revered, it can also implicate a stagnancy - its someone whose legacy is already set. To be a pop star, though, is to still be acknowledged as in your prime. Like so many pop stars, Batman can be defined through his various periods. Sure, his mainstream visibility waxes and wanes, and there might be as many golden eras as there are embarrassing ones, but to one degree or another, he's always relevant, and forever vital.

Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia's Zero Year work, the latest story to tell of Bruce Wayne's early ascent to becoming this most modern interpretation of Batman, integrates all of the most important pop components of Batman in the modern cultural context, from comics to beyond. The character's relationship with fear closely aligns with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. His voice reads just the way that Kevin Conroy's sounded voicing the Caped Crusader in those early, original Batman: The Aninmated Series cartoons. Even the way this latest adventure is structured, as a race against the clock with a mastermind broadcasting terror to a seized Gotham City from the city's heart, with innocents at risk everywhere and adversaries around every corner, harkens to the feel of playing the immensely popular Batman: Arkham City video game series.

And just as the creators have drawn from Batman's crossplatform, multimedia presence, the creative influence of the comicbooks have been honored, as well. Frank Miller's contributions to the Bat-lore are acknowledged with familiar visual callbacks, and the overall energy of the book, its flair, and perhaps the very idea of Batman as a pop-star itself, invokes the recent infusion of vitality owed to Grant Morrison's longform Bat-story.

Comic book fans can be a wary and entrenched lot, and after over a decade of seeing their favorite superheroes' origins told and retold on the silver screen, they are particularly suspicious of yet another comicbook retelling of a hero's come-up. Basically, the thinking goes, it's been done. Tell us something we don't know. Zero Year sidesteps the kinds of criticisms leveled against most retold origin stories by retelling very little, and originating entirely new cornerstones to the character's mythos. Due to DC Comics' New 52 relauch, this story needn't dance and fit between the raindrops of story points from books released decades ago, and the creators have seized that opportunity by making this story as original as they can.

This Batman is familiar, but new. Both his angst and his supremacy, which largely defined the character following the seminal “gritty,” 80's stories, have largely been exorcised in favor of fallibility and even occasional spurt of whimsy. It's a full-on revival.

In retelling an origin story, the hook is the same as the biggest potential pitfall; the audience has a pretty good idea of where the story ends up. (Spoiler alert: Batman, like, generally, saves Gotham.) Good storytellers can toy with that expectancy as well, though, which is what Snyder and Capullo do here when they begin this final Zero Year arc by revealing just what the “Zero Year,” is; the year Batman lost, for all of Gotham, and the city became overrun with wildlife and chaos.

This Batman is humble, not only because this story is set at a time when he is green and unproven, but because when the Savage City arc begins, he has already failed Gotham. The Riddler is running this town like he's a Mad King. Under his despotic rule, he means to transform Gotham into some sort of intellectual meritocracy, where citizens can earn the city's freedom if only they're able to stump him. And, duh, the game is rigged. Because, like all good Bat-villains, the Riddler wears crazypants.

Capullo and Miki's linework and storytelling is as consistent and crystal clear as any run on the title in recent memory. They can do “silly” when Bruce needs to be dressed-down, and they can nail “shadowy and menacing” when The Bat needs to instill fear in the hearts of wicked men. The versatility affords the book a broadness that any reader, no matter their history with comics, could pick up and enjoy. What jumps out the most, though, is FCO Plascencia's career-best color work. Modern readers know Batman as being “dark,” and this has been represented in the comics. He's a nighttime character, he moves in shadows, so much so that even the yellow circle the Bat-logo was set against on his chest has become passe.

This isn't an instance of a color scheme being different simply for the sake of being different, there are real story implications at hand here. The colors reject the very premise that a “dark” character need be enveloped in darkness. The baseline palate here seems to be one of pink, purple and green, which draws such a fantastic contrast, not only to the character, but to the audience's long-established expectations for him. Gotham is enveloped by green wildlife, but Bruce Wayne constructed The Batman around the idea of urban warfare. He is not in complete control of his surroundings, we can sense, making his carefully-reasoned tactics somewhat compromised. His challenge is that much greater.

This issue was very much an installment of the story, the way that would be teased as a kicker to an episode of the Adam West TV series. “Will Batman recover Gotham from the dastardly doings of the debased Edward Nygma? Will the denizens of the city successfully Riddle their way to safety despite all odds and crazypants, or nah? Can Batman learn that the only way to get by is with a little, or mayhap even a lot, of help from his friends? Tune in for our next installment, Batarangers, to find out the answer to these questions and more!”

Callbacks like that, or the visually-represented “Biff! Pow! Bam!” sound effects used to make “real” Batman fans cringe, as did the garish codpieces and psychedelic color schemes of the Joel Schumacher films. The team behind Zero Year is taking all of those gaudy elements and muddling them in with the fan favorites to find a new zesty flavor that redeems them, even at their silliest. It's all Batman, and that's what makes it awesome. Because we know Batman is awesome.

An icon is forced to only play the greatest hits, and to relive past glories. A pop star, though, couples their catalog full of smashes with the vital promise of many years more to come. Batman tops the charts.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Wolverine and the X-Men #3
Written by Jason Latour
Art by Mahmud Asrar and Israel Silva
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The veil is slowly being lifted as Jason Latour and Mahmud Asrar’s Wolverine and the X-Men barrels forward. With this new issue, Latour attempts to really hammer home the themes that will define his work. The question at the center is “Who defines who you are?” and as X-Men themes go, that one is pretty applicable to just about all of them. The direction is really starting to come together in this issue just as Mahmud Asrar’s artwork reaches an impressive level of consistency.

Latour reinforces his dedication to his theme with a great flashback framing device in the opening pages. Instead of putting that focus on Quentin Quire though, he uses Storm and starts to question the very concept of the X-Men. Were they always meant to be heroes? Or were they the product of an indoctrinated youth? With their mentor dead, what defines them now? It’s an extension of the struggle that Wolverine had when wondering how he could live up to Xavier’s legacy.

Latour continues bringing Phoenix and Apocalypse’s historical significance to the forefront, as well. On some level, a Quentin Quire/Genesis faceoff seems inevitable. But even what the X-Men already know about the future might not come to pass because they don’t know the series of events that led to that future. Quire’s heroic moment seems to indicate that they’re doing everything right for now. But the volatility of the X-Men can never be underestimated. You never know who will pop up from the future or the past. Keeping that bit of uncertainty in the back of the reader’s mind is what helps effectively drive Latour’s narrative.

In terms of the artwork, Mahmud Asrar turns in his best issue so far. His character renderings have gotten much more consistent since the first issue and his work with their expressions (particularly Quentin Quire’s) is really great. Asrar is definitely lacking in the stylization that marks other Marvel artists but that’s not a bad thing. There’s an emphasis on clarity that works for this book. His lines comes across as almost a cleaner Stuart Immonen at times and he’s able to handle everything Latour throws at him.

Wolverine and the X-Men is coming together. It’s promising big things with the plot but it’s filtering them through an interesting examination of these characters. This direction was hinted at in issue one but got a little lost under the weight of exposition in issue two. If Latour can maintain the balance that he shows here in future issues, then this book will definitely become one of the better ancillary X-Men titles.

Credit: DC Comics

Sinestro #1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Dale Eaglesham and Jason Wright
Lettering by Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It's a good day to be a bad guy. Especially if you're a bad guy being written by Cullen Bunn.

While DC's other Green Lantern titles are still in the throes of crossovers and mini-events as they try to establish their own identities after Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi's departures, there's one Lantern that does not need that kind of reassurance. Stepping onto the scene with a confidence and style that neither Hal Jordan, John Stewart, Guy Gardner or Kyle Rayner have been able to ignite, Cullen Bunn and Dale Eaglesham have proven who is the greatest Lantern of all these days: Sinestro.

There's something to be said for rooting for the bad guy, and Bunn knows how to harness that subversive instinct. Just like his flawed characters in The Sixth Gun, Bunn doesn't endear you to Sinestro - he instead makes you respect him. Kneeling in isolation amongst the bones of murdered priests, Sinestro is a figure that doesn't need a ring to take care of business. He can mull over his past shortcomings as a conqueror while breaking an alien tiger's neck with his bare hands. Similar to Peter Tomasi's Black Adam series, or similar to Bunn's own musings over in Marvel's Magneto, there's a thoughtfulness that indicates a greater depth to Thaal Sinestro, the disgraced Green Lantern and the former wielder of fear itself.

Yet since Bunn's other great Big Two book is Marvel's Magneto, it's interesting to compare and contrast the two. Magneto, armed with the mutant metaphor as well as his own history of persecution in Nazi Germany, has a more built-in version of humanity to his exploits. You know that, as his core, Magneto's goals are rooted in an extreme nationalism to the mutant race. In that regard, Sinestro is taking some similar pages, as the planet Korugar is invoked to spur him into action. The difference is Magneto knows he's doing good deeds as a bad man - Sinestro's quest is on a much larger scale, as it's clear what the fear that drives him is. He's a man whose failures as a hero haunt him, and he fears that if he cannot correct them, he will never be redeemed. It's a tragedy, because Bunn's Sinestro is as myopic as he is regal - he's doomed to failure before he can begin, because he spills more blood by his actions than ever would be shed had he simply stayed in exile.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that this book is also one of the best-drawn books in the entire Green Lantern family. Dale Eaglesham embues Sinestro with a strength and emotional weight that sometimes even makes Bunn's monologues seem redundant. You can see the weight on Sinestro's shoulders as he kneels, seemingly unaware of the alien beast out for his blood behind him. Think of Ivan Reis smashed together with Ethan Van Sciver, as Eaglesham's artwork has both iconic designwork and the occasional moment of gross detail, such as Lyssa Drak's fanged mouth shaking the otherwise orderly panel structure of a page. Occasionally Eaglesham's panels skew from the normal straightforward layouts, which winds up feeling a bit superfluous, but for the most part, his artwork is extremely clean and his inking lends a ton of shadowy atmosphere. Colorist Jason Wright also does great work with the book's purple and yellow color scheme, adding energy but never at the cost of realism.

Is there a case to be made for the similarities between this book and Bunn's Magneto? Assuredly - but whereas Magneto is more of a gritty, streetwise comic (indeed, one that sometimes skirts the line of scary), Sinestro is a bold, dark sci-fi antihero. You know blood is going to be spilled, you know bad things are going to be done for good reasons. Right now, Sinestro doesn't have as compelling or as built-in of a backstory as the Master of Magnetism, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - this is Bunn's chance to focus on a handful of failings to the renegade Green Lantern, and to get us rooting for one of the universe's most bloodthirsty villains.

And I say: Bring it on.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Amazing X-Men #6
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Cameron Stewart and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

You can't always be amazing. And after fighting through Heaven and Hell itself, Jason Aaron and the Amazing X-Men have certainly earned a break. That said, even with Cameron Stewart on board for the art, this epilogue to Aaron and Ed McGuinness's rollicking story feels like a significant letdown from what's come before.

Part of it is because this is such a departure from the standard departure of a writer. While McGuinness is scheduled to come back to Amazing X-Men with incoming writers Chris Yost and Craig Kyle in two months, this issue is (surprisingly) Aaron's final issue as an X-Men writer. But instead of it being a huge anniversary event, like Geoff Johns over in Green Lantern or Grant Morrison over on Batman, Aaron doesn't end his run with a bang, but instead on a much more sedate note. Call it burnout or call it an earned fading away, but there's a marked decrease in energy to this issue. The X-Men are celebrating, but even their jubliation over the resurrection of Kurt Wagner feels sedate. As the team drinks, there's not much energy, whether it's Wolverine toasting to Nightcrawler's return, or the perfunctory return of the fugitive Cyclops, here to wish his friend well (as well as to get his regularly scheduled moral whipping by the rest of the team).

The story doesn't perk up much from there, as Aaron turns his focus from the X-Men and puts the spotlight on Kurt and his dysfunctional parents: the shapeshifting Mystique and the teleporting demon Azazel. There's a little bit of foreshadowing to Kurt's change in demeanor since giving up his soul and returning from the dead, but beyond that, the exchanges are plot-driven, rather than Aaron's usual character-filled repartee. Mystique wants Azazel, Azazel wants to escape, and Nightcrawler is shouting at both of them to quit, well, acting like supervillains. Aaron's pacing is a bit off, as well, as the characters barely have enough time to start throwing punches before he has to abruptly cut off the fights.

This is where the review gets controversial. Because it's not fair to compare artists... but when you're coming off the bouncy, over-the-top highs of Ed McGuinness, even an artist as technically proficient as Cameron Stewart winds up paling in comparison. Combined with colorist Rachelle Rosenberg, Stewart's artwork winds up looking extremely flat, especially when it comes to the sketchy faces of characters like Wolverine or Cyclops. (Rosenberg drenches most of the book in dark blues and purples, and that only saps the energy of the pages further.) Stewart has a few bright moments as Nightcrawler flips through the air, catching and teleporting SHIELD agents as they're flung through the air, but even a moment like Mystique firing guns on a motorcycle wind up looking pretty low-key. It's understandable in this day and age to expect an escalation of crazy superhero action, but with characters with so much visual potential like Nightcrawler or Azazel, it's disappointing to see the fights fizzle this hard.

The tough thing about Amazing X-Men #6 is that it's not a bad book, nor are the creators bad at all. The tough thing about Amazing X-Men is knowing that this team is capable of so much more. Given his schedule, with Original Sin down the pipeline and Thor: God of Thunder gaining a ton of traction, it's perhaps not surprising that something would have to give - and it's not like the previous five issues of Amazing X-Men haven't been, well, outstanding. But as far as last hurrahs go, this is one party where Jason Aaron might have stayed just a little bit too long.

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