Best Shots Comic Book Reviews: THOR #3, BATMAN ETERNAL #36, More

Thor art by Russell Dauterman
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Thor #3
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson
Letters by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Whereas Jason Aaron's Thor: God of Thunder got off to an impatiently rocky start, his new volume, simply titled Thor, has been on a lightning-fast upswing since its debut issue. Some of that can be chalked up to artist Russell Dauterman's energetic linework, but more than that, it seems that Aaron has found the perfect balance for his grandiose vision and down-to-earth voice in the dichotomy of the new Thor's inner-monologue, and her outward, Mjolnir-driven dialogue. With Thor #3, the rest of the cast - notably villains Dario Agger, Malekith, and the frost giants, are coming into their own in a way Aaron never accomplished in his previous volume. Maybe it's the new Thor shaking things up, but more likely, Aaron has simply hit his stride.

There's very little that's more gratifying than watching creators who are clearly excited to be working on a project. There's a sense of engagement that comes through the pages when both writer and artist are clearly laboring out of love. This feels true of both Aaron and Dauterman, who seem like they're just having so much fun pitting the inexperienced Thor against her predecessor's most basic foes, the frost giants, and playing the suddenly compelling, sly Malekith against the brute force of Dario Agger. In a way, it's interesting that the book's newest character, the new Thor, feels like the most established part of the book, falling perfectly into the role of Goddess of Thunder, while Agger and Malekith - characters Aaron wrote extensively in God of Thunder - are showing depth Aaron never previously attained.

Malekith definitely gets the most interesting development this issue, as he is rapidly evolving from a sneering sociopath to a schemer suddenly seeing his plans going off the rails. That's not to say he's less vicious, but his encounters with Skyrmir and Agger show that he's more than just his mean streak. Aaron's been using Malekith for a while now, to varying effect, but the idea that Malekith could pan out to be the new Thor's Loki is intriguing to say the least. Agger is another character whose personality is finally starting to come through over his function. He's given some of his best scenery-chewing lines yet - "What the hell? My vice president of Warlocks assured me those doors were magically sealed and completely impenetrable," certainly stands out - and his larger-than-life greed is starting to be balanced by a bullish simplicity that fits with his true nature.

Aaron's use of thought bubbles is particularly effective in Thor #3, playing up whosoever happens to be wielding the power of Thor's amazement at her newfound abilities, while also building in her the kind of grit and determination that one would expect to be necessary to wield Mjolnir. The thought bubbles - kind of an outmoded device at this point - work far better than captions for this purpose, allowing Aaron to show a real distinction between the voice of Thor, and the inner-voice of the mystery woman holding his hammer. While it does start to feel a little like we're never going to find out just who is under that helmet, and Aaron certainly teases us with it this issue, it's important to remember she's really only been on the scene for two issues. That we've all been living with the mystery for a lot longer than that may be to the book's detriment, making it feel like it is dragging where it isn't, however on its face, the mystery is only starting to build.

As previously stated, Russell Dauterman's artwork is really what makes Thor sing. His scenes of Jotunheim are dreamlike, with an almost Winsor McCay, art nouveau quality to their lines, a quality that is not lost in scenes of Thor fighting the residents of that icy kingdom. It's entirely heartening to know that the frost giants won't be diminished as a threat any time soon, as Dauterman renders them so perfectly. Likewise, his take on Malekith has a kind of fairy tale quality that suits the world of Thor so strongly, aiding Jason Aaron's efforts to go beyond Malekith as a despot and murderer. Of course, Matthew Wilson's colors are also pitch-perfect, finding surprising depth in the blues and grays of the frost giants, which makes the shock of Thor's red cape all the more heroic and energetic.

It's very hard to find flaws in Thor #3. The mystery surrounding its protagonist is growing organically, despite the hype surrounding the book's announcement, and with a conflict between Thor, and Odinson, as Mjolnir's previous wielder is now known on the horizon, it's hard to fault the point her arc has reached. On top of that, Jason Aaron is growing as a writer before our eyes, beautifully setting a stage for the new Thor that has ties to what's come before, but establishing a mood and style all her own. Russell Dauterman is perhaps the best fit for Aaron's Thor yet, flawlessly balancing the epic with the endearing. It's hard to call out an issue that isn't exactly monumental for its perfection, but Aaron and Dauterman's Thor #3 perfectly embodies what superhero comics should feel like.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman Eternal #36
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Fernando Blanco and Marcelo Maiolo
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

A city on the brink of destruction. A falling death trap in the form of the Batmobile. A hidden puppet master pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The Bat-family would call this Wednesday. Cliffhangers have become normal operating procedure in the pages of Batman Eternal but this month’s issue is about much more than just the resolution of its latest flaming ring that Batman must jump through. Batman Eternal #36 is about something that the Bat-family books have always danced around, but never fully explored; the ripple effects caused by Batman and his ilk as they wage their war on crime. Writer James Tynion IV, along with the rest of the Eternal writing staff, use this month’s issue to slow down the breakneck pace of DC’s weekly juggernaut to tell an all-too-human story about the unforeseen consequences of Batman’s crusade and its effect on the people on the fringes; those of which who find themselves closer to the fray than they could ever imagine.

SPOILERS In the Next Paragraph

Picking up instantly after last week’s issue ended, new Gotham Police Commissioner Jason Bard finally has Batman exactly where he wants him; trapped in the Batmobile and plummeting toward the city streets. While Hush and - SPOILERS ON, Bat-fans - a throwaway reveal of the Riddler are obviously the main antagonists, Batman Eternal #36 finally divulges the full story behind Bard’s one-man war against the Caped Crusader. Bard isn’t some homicidal dirty cop or someone under the influence of a rogue for some nefarious purpose; he is simply a man who has experienced a terrible loss and knows no way to handle it other than to throw himself headlong into righting something that he has always seen as Jim Gordon’s failing.

James Tynion IV, one of the more talented and naturalistic writers among the roster of Batman Eternal, trades the heavy action of some of the previous issues of Eternal and delivers a tale about a broken man coping in the best way that he can against and immovable force in the form of the Bat family. Unlike Gordon, Bard is blinded by his grief and unable to see the benefits of having a network of superheroes working in tandem in the shadows alongside the GCPD. Bard only sees Batman as the cause of his woe, much like all the greatest Bat-villains, but without all the bombast and outright evil intentions. Bard is just trying to do right by his fallen partner and lover. It is that inversion of the usual Bat-villain M.O. that makes Batman Eternal #36 so compelling.

Handling the art this issue is the team of Fernando Blanco and Marcelo Maiolo, whose bold lines and natural color choices brings the work of Yanick Paquette’s Batman Incorporated to mind, which is more than fine for this reviewer. As this issue is very dialogue- and exposition-heavy, Blanco uses that to his advantage, rendering most of the interplay between characters in tight close ups with minimal set dressing aside from a few visual cues from the Bat-computer, in particular a digitized version of last week’s climatic Batmobile crash through a high-rise window. While some of these close-ups make the characters look a bit lumpy and misshapen, particularly a few panels in which Julia Pennyworth attempts to subvert the Batmobile’s programming, for the most part Blanco’s panels come across as very humanist, accentuating the emotions of the characters as well as their reactions to what is going on around them. It's always impressive when an artist gives just as good reactions as they do action, and Fernando Blanco does that well here.

The Batman, Inc. comparison truly kicks in though when talking about Marcelo Maiolo’s colors, however. Maiolo’s heavy brushes and almost dulled color choices really bring to mind Nathan Fairbairn’s work on the title, especially in the issue’s main set peice, a flashback to Bard’s first encounter with a Batman impersonator which lead to the death of his partner. The double-page scene is rendered with almost through a hazy lens that dulls the earth tones of the character’s costumes and the drab nature of the set. The only striking bit of color being Bard’s doomed partner’s Jodie’s blazing red hair and the blood that coats Bard after the shots are fired. Maiolo finds singular and explosive uses to color, almost as if the colorist is wielding certain colors like a weapon, making Batman Eternal #36 an evocative read.

While Batman Eternal #36 may be centered on Bard’s one man crusade against the Bat family, it is still the family that remains at the end of the issue, still grasping at the unseen hand behind it all and struggling to parse through the cryptic ramblings of the newly returned Hush. Serialized storytelling lives and dies by its characters, but thankfully, readers are still more than happy to spend week after week following the exploits of our favorite Bat themed warriors, but Batman Eternal #36 casts them almost as utility players in their own story. Focusing instead on Bard and his, frankly, justifiable hatred for the Dark Knight and his ilk. Unforeseen consequences and the fallout of superhero action, albeit an poor imitation of that action, is something we rarely see in comics, because, if I’m honest, most of the time the plots don’t land as hard as they should. Batman Eternal #36 lands assuredly, and tells a compelling human story amid the masks and the mayhem.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Spider-Man and the X-Men #1
Written by Elliott Kalan
Art by Marco Failla and Ian Herring
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

After losing the spotlight following the departure of Jason Aaron and the death of Wolverine, school is back in session for the Jean Grey School - and its newest professor? Your friendly neighborhood webslinger. While some might accuse Marvel of blatant cash-grabbing by bringing two franchises together in Spider-Man and the X-Men, it's hard to deny this book's already potent charm. With some animated artwork from Marco Failla and some very funny characterization from Daily Show head writer Eliott Kalan, this is a book that's very much the class clown of the X-books - goofy and occasionally underachieving, but you can't help but love it.

While some might cry foul at the concept - after all, it hasn't been that long since Spidey had a session teaching super-powered teens back in Avengers Academy - Kalan really milks the fish-out-of-water narrative, as Spidey is literally dropped right in the middle of an X-Men fight with uber-obscure Unus the Untouchable. And if you think Spider-Man is a weird fit to join the X-Men, imagine how the actual X-Men feel. "How it'd look to the world if we need a non-mutant to come in and tell us how to behave?" Iceman tells Spidey as he fires some frost towards the villain. "Not even sure you should be fighting Unus..." Kalan says it as a joke, but the metatext is clear - mutant world, mutant problems. No outsiders needed or wanted.

Yet if you know anything about Spider-Man, it's that he doesn't quit. Ever. Even in a room full of people who don't want him there. And that leads to some humor and heart with Spider-Man and the X-Men #1, as this nerd's nerd tries to wrangle the Jean Grey School's "special class" and set them straight. (Annnnnd maybe find a mole in the process. It's a trope as old as dirt, especially in a school full of telepaths, but it lends some mystery and cuts to the chase.) What Kalan gets about the X-students is particularly insightful, as Peter's "great power, great responsibility" ethos clashes strongly against the X-Men's increasingly speciesist bunker mentality. If you have the power to protect people who can't protect themselves, isn't it your responsibility to do so? Or does that philosophy lead to inevitable disappointment and failure? As Spidey rightly claims, "There's more to the world than mutants fighting mutants!" This leads to some welcome sparks flying - and these sparks may help rejuvenate an ailing concept.

That said, while Kalan has everything right in terms of his premise, there's some parameters - some editorial, some self-inflicted - that do hold this book back from being everything it can be. First and foremost, the big problem with Spider-Man and the X-Men are the students. Xavier almighty, these students are still the dregs, and they're part of what weighed down Wolverine and the X-Men during the end of Jason Aaron's tenure. Kalan tries his best to fit these square pegs into some round archetypical holes - making Ernest the class sass, for example, is a surprising move - while Eye Boy elicits some chuckles as he struggles between being a rebel like his classmates and being a complete teachers' pet. The lack of new (or more compelling) students is likely rooted in editorial - Kalan's plot, however, does feel a little light, culminating in a fight at the American Museum of Natural History against Stegron, the Dinosaur Man. Kalan's bottom-of-the-barrel villains do serve to keep this book feeling goofy and light, even if it sometimes comes at the cost of real tension.

While I've been singing Kalan's praises throughout this review, someone else who deserves some digital ink is Marco Failla. I hadn't heard of Failla before this issue, but I hope to see more of his work after this. Failla reminds me a bit of Karl Kerschl mixed with Kris Anka - in particular, he gives Storm a raised eyebrow that could kill a man with its sheer disdain. Failla's characters all come across as incredibly expressive, and perhaps even more importantly, he sells the absolute hell out of the high-flying Spider-Man as he swings across the Danger Room. Failla's one weak spot still is composition, as there are a few reveals that wind up getting stepped on because of bad angles, but for the most part, it's his visuals that lend this book its inherent charm.

There are plenty of people who will ask whether or not we need another Spider-Man book or X-Men spinoff, and the obvious answer is that while we have plenty of spinoffs in their respective franchises, Marvel is giving us something a little bit different by smashing two of its franchises together. The rest is a small-scale story told well. With a thoughtful analysis of both Spider-Man and the X-Men's various worlds, Kalan and Failla have delivered an opening issue that reads surprisingly well, even if it's sometimes a little rough around the edges. But would you really expect anything else from Professor Spider-Man and his Special Class?

Credit: DC Comics

Batgirl #37
Written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher
Art by Babs Tarr, Cameron Stewart and Maris Wicks
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

To date, Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, Babs Tarr and company have rebuilt Batgirl into a consistently fun read that holds a broader demographic appeal than some previous runs on the character. The key has been in characterization. Taking the weight of the rest of the Bat-line off of Barbara Gordon’s shoulders enables the team to craft stories that allow her to be better defined on her own terms rather than her relationships to Batman or Commissioner Gordon. Babs Tarr’s art continues that shift by immediately setting this title apart from its contemporaries. But even the best creative teams stumble sometimes. Previous issues employed an enjoyable “villain of the week” set-up that didn’t allow for Barbara to be outshined by a marquee name. That approach continues, unfortunately with a poorly executed foe, and the lack of credible threats is starting to work against the title.

An artist and a Batgirl impersonator are hijacking the Batgirl brand and Barbara is desperate to get to the bottom of it. What sounds like a solid concept plays out as such for most of the title. Stewart and Fletcher explore Barbar’s relationships with her supporting cast, from her tenuous one with Dinah to her almost Bond/Q-type rapport with Qadir, and they find yet another interesting way to use Babs’ eidetic memory - along with some esoteric Bat-training - to get our hero to face her foe. Then Batgirl faces the impostor for the second time. Mild Bat-spoilers ahead: The overly bedazzled Batgirl fraud loses her wig as Barbara tries to find out her identity. And as it turns out, Stewart and Fletcher have turned an enthralling concept into just another boring trope. The impostor is a man, making this another unfortunate example of lazy writers queering the villain and reinforcing an idea that is prevalent in mainstream media that “queer equals evil.”

Using crossdressing as a trait of an evil character isn’t something new. In fact, it’s something that we’ve seen before in Batman’s own rogues gallery. (Or did you not notice Joker’s pumps in Arkham Asylum?) Hell, I’m not even going to say that it’s something that writers shouldn’t do. Evil people crossdress. So do good people. But when the character in question is given no context, no characterization and is treated with so little compassion, it supports a heteronormative streak in superhero comics that runs miles and miles deep. (We’ll discuss heteronormativity and superhero costumes in general another time. Do you have a few hours to spare for some discussion?) Besides that, it relegates a strong central concept (especially in light of the title’s penchant for technology) to just another “monster of the week” scare-up. (And this time, the monster is gay! Or something...what year is it?)

Artist Babs Tarr can do no wrong, though. This book is obviously one of the best-looking in the entire New 52. Working off of Cameron Stewart’s ambitious breakdowns, Tarr injects every page with boundless amounts of energy because of her excellent character renderings and strong lines. Many frequent Bat-title readers might be put off by Maris Wicks’ bright colors (and admittedly she might got a little overboard on the sequins) but that’s what helps make this book unique. Babs Tarr makes Barbara Gordon’s life look somewhat realistic despite it’s cartoony nature. “Cartoony” is usually used as a pejorative but it’s an apt descriptor here and absolutely meant as a compliment. Her work lives somewhere between Bryan Lee O'Malley's on Scott Pilgrim or Seconds and Kate Beaton. That’s some pretty good company.

The plotting may ultimately betray the characters and concept in this issue, but on the whole, it’s not a bad effort. good writers can make bad decisions and hopefully, this is just a case of the team hitting an early bump in the road. (We are only three issues into their run, after all.) And for it’s narrative flaws, Barbara Gordon is still a very strong character. I’m hoping that she’ll start to come up against some bigger villains or at least more inventive ones (a la last issue’s motorcycle ninjas). Despite this issue’s flaws, Babs Tarr should be the real draw for most readers. She’s continuing to make this book a great read for new and old fans alike.

Credit: Marvel Comics

AXIS #7
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Adam Kubert, Edgar Delgado and Jesus Aburtov
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Everybody's got their favorites.

You see it in families, in businesses, in the comics you read. That at the end of the day, you're going to gravitate towards one thing in particular, even with numerous other options in front of you. But in the case of Rick Remender and AXIS, that's actually a very good thing. Even with dozens of characters at his disposal, Remender picks just a handful to really work his magic on, and even if that winds up largely skimming this series' central concept, it provides a much more cohesive read.

With the Inversion turning heroes into villains and villains into heroes, Remender has had a lot on his plate, these past seven issues. While the Avengers were turned into fascistic executioners, the X-Men took an even darker turn - their business has turned to genocide. With Apocalypse and his gene-bomb threatening to wipe out humanity, Steve Rogers and Spider-Man have taken on some very unexpected allies in the form of Deadpool, Carnage, and a host of other supervillains now fighting for the greater good.

You notice how I gloss over many of the names of the heroes and villains involved in this fracas. Don't worry, Remender does, too. Aside from some window-dressing exposition featuring Cyclops and Havok - leading into an over-stuffed double-page sequence featuring 18 superpowered people beating the stuffing out of each other - Remender smartly tapers down this book. The real stars of this show aren't the Avengers or the X-Men, but Deadpool and Apocalypse, as Remender revisits an arc that he's been laying down since his tenure on Uncanny X-Force. Can a Zen-minded Deadpool reach out to the boy he helped raise? Or is Evan Sabahnur officially drowned within the visage of Apocalypse? It's that back-and-forth that gives AXIS #7 its soul, with great moments like Deadpool singing The Youngbloods' "Get Together" amid a battle royale, or Apocalypse - unless my eyes deceive me - actually pausing to consider if nurture, not nature, might be the strongest thing there is.

That's not to say that Remender doesn't also get down to business. We've discussed this elsewhere on the Mothership, but the subplot featuring the Scarlet Witch squaring off against Magneto and Quicksilver causes some upsets to the status quo that, while perhaps a little strange on the storytelling front, does create some new wrinkles in the name of corporate synergy. That said, this sequence is very much a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of affair, stemming more from artist Adam Kubert having some very strange page layouts (although one could easily argue that it's fitting, given that those pages focus on the Mistress of Chaos Magic). While I think that it's slightly goofy to remove Magneto's legacy from Pietro and Wanda after so many years of characterization, there's (theoretically) some room for something even more interesting to take its place.

While I just pooh-poohed Adam Kubert a paragraph ago, I would be remiss if I didn't say this was his best issue of AXIS yet. While some of the aforementioned crowd scenes are a bit too overwhelming to really take in, once Remender zooms in on characters like Spider-Man and Deadpool, Kubert really starts to shine. There's a bit with Nightcrawler dispatching Spidey that's one of the more dynamic of the book, and watching Apocalypse wail on Deadpool literally shakes the panels with its bloody violence. Edgar Delgado and Jesus Aburtov keep the book from falling too flat, although occasionally some of the energy effects threaten to overload the book.

That said, the one irony of AXIS #7 is that even though it's a series about the Avengers and X-Men turning into villains (and their so-called villains stepping up to the plate), this series has only gotten really good once Remender has ignored the vast majority of the characters involved. Sometimes you can only shove so many different voices in 20 pages before it starts to feel incoherent or rambling. Yet even as he narrows down the scope of his characters to some familiar faces, Remender does manage to distill the key element of AXIS - namely, the difference between a hero and a villain. And that's an achievement that justifies playing favorites.

Credit: Archie Comics

Afterlife With Archie #7
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Art by Francesco Francavilla
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Review by Erika D. Peterman
Published by Archie Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Even without a great deal of zombie action, Afterlife With Archie #7 brims with tension and, as usual, elements of surprise. The characters’ inner lives are just riveting as the imminent danger surrounding them, and this comic excels at revealing while leaving just enough to the imagination.

Resident good girl Betty Cooper serves as the dominant voice in this issue, wherein the gang of survivors navigates back roads and woods beyond Riverdale toward a specific destination. Along the way, Betty uses a journal to reflect on her life before the disaster. It isn’t the postcard, untroubled past you might expect.

Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa continues to impress by giving seemingly uncomplicated characters depth and interesting backstories that make Afterlife With Archie a very human horror tale. There’s a palpable sadness as Betty remembers loved ones left behind, including one family member who arguably was lost long before the zombie outbreak. It takes considerable writing skill to bring flashbacks to the foreground without sacrificing overall story momentum, and Aguirre-Sacasa pulls off this feat each time.

Betty’s journal entries give insight into two of the most important relationships in her life — her friendship with Veronica and possibly even more complicated connection to Archie. Speaking of Archie, Afterlife With Archie #7shows, with impressive and moving subtlety, how Betty’s relationship with him has deepened during the journey. Their carefully hidden bond has eclipsed Archie’s fascination with Veronica, and Veronica’s growing suspicion brings the proceedings to a slow boil. Betty’s pitch-perfect response to Veronica’s highly personal question stands as one of the best single-panel moments in this series so far.

Interspersed with Betty’s story are glimpses of twins Cheryl and Jason Blossom’s privileged, isolated childhood. The unsettling nature of their relationship is fertile ground for shock, and Afterlife With Archie #7 doesn’t disappoint on this front. There’s a particular revelation readers are probably bracing for, but the book serves up another entirely — one that kicks up the holy-crap factor.

Francesco Francavilla’s illustrations and color work remain eye-catching, employing plenty of fiery reds and yellows that crackle against the background without becoming too one-note or overwhelming. Francavilla also has succeeded in making each character fully and memorably his own. Jack Morelli’s lettering style shifts smoothly between Betty’s journal handwriting and the larger narrative.

Afterlife With Archie #7 may not be as quite as gripping as previous entries, but that isn’t a complaint given how high the bar is at this point. It’s an immersing interlude that deepens the reader’s understanding of the players and pushes yet more conflict to the surface while never letting us forget what lurks in those dark woods.

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