Best Shots Reviews: BATGIRL #37, GotG ANNUAL #1, GL CORPS #37, THE VALIANT #1, More

Batgirl #37
Credit: DC Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for your reviews? Best Shots has you covered, with a one-two punch of advance reviews of two new Image series debtuting this week, followed by a six-pack of reviews from around the industry!

Rumble #1
Written by John Arcudi
Art by James Harren and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

There's something lethally surreal and strikingly gorgeous about Rumble #1 - and it's those two qualities that will make or break this book. Featuring a hulking, sword-swinging scarecrow and a hapless bartender who stumbles into his path, there's not a lot of narrative ground covered in this first issue. Instead, it's a stunning spotlight on what should be the next big name in Image's talent pool, as artist James Harren transforms writer John Arcudi's ideas into the gleaming stuff of beautiful nightmares.

For those looking for an intricate high concept, you might want to think again - John Arcudi deals in mood, not narrative, with his story being even looser than his spooky stories over in the Hellboy universe. Without sounding too glib, this is the story of boy meets scarecrow - albeit with surprise amputations and a few creatures that look like they were coughed up from Hell. Arcudi's main character, a bartender named Bobby, doesn't have much going for him at this point - Arcudi already knows that, with one character telling Bobby, "If your life were a movie it would be over in an hour and a half." Ouch. Instead, Arcudi is just trying to set the stage, including an introductory page of a downed Paul Bunyan statue. "What variety of emptiness is this? What color of darkness that makes blind the eyes of a caring God?" To paraphrase Will Ferrell, "no one knows what it means, but it's evocative."

What sets Rumble apart from the pack has to be the artwork. James Harren is a juggernaut, an artistic beast bent on destruction, and he's easily the best standout artist I've seen from Image since the days of Tradd Moore. His characters are crumpled and cartoony, particularly the hard edges of Mr. Coogan or almost goblin-like features of Bobby. Like Moore, Harren ramps up with the images, as his characters move almost too fast for readers - or even the artist - to follow, as we watch Rumble's scarecrow warrior drag his behemoth sword across an alleyway. (And once that scarecrow starts swinging, it's just an unholy mess of blood, steel and debris. Just really visceral stuff.) Combine that with Dave Stewart lending some gorgeous reds, oranges and yellows that always pop but never overwhelm, and you've got just one good-looking book.

Of course, the real question that will make or break Rumble - and it's a question that you could pose to plenty of other gorgeous Image reads, including Shutter, Nonplayer or Luther Strode - is whether or not that visceral art will carry the book forward long enough for Arcudi to tease his story out. For better or for worse, this first issue reads like a teaser trailer rather than a comprehensive chapter, and if you haven't been reading the comics press sites for interviews on the book, chances are you won't have any better sense of the high concept even after reading. Some might call Rumble self-indulgent, and they wouldn't be wrong - just as Arcudi plays his cards perhaps too close to the vest (particularly with some of the more tangential scenes popping up out of nowhere), all that means is we get to see Harren draw scene after sickly gorgeous scene.

Maybe Rumble is more like its titular scarecrow - speak softly and carry a big-ass sword. We might not get a lot of information on the characters or the overarching story yet, but Arcudi bets - and I'd argue, bets correctly - that the sheer power of James Harren will keep us coming back for more. Rumble is likely one of the best-looking books Image has put out in quite some time - only time will tell if the story behind the pretty pictures will prove to be as engaging.

They're Not Like Us #1
Written by Eric Stephenson
Art by Simon Gane and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Fonografiks
Published by Image Comics
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It's getting harder and harder to find a fresh take on the "humans with special powers" comic. It's understandable why so many creators seek to put their own spin on such a story. Regardless of how many non-superhero comics a writer or artist may produce, chances are good that it was the cape and cowl that got them into comics. So it is to that inspirational well that many a creator is always drawn. To that end, They're Not Like Us is akin to many similarly themed titles from before. Ranging from the legendary run of X-Men by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely or Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley's more reality-based Brilliant, this is very well-traveled territory. So how does a title like They're Not Like Us stand out?

To an extent, it doesn't. But that isn't really fair to writer Eric Stephenson. There are times when a writer needs to embrace a trope for the purposes of moving a story to its more important element. As such, Stephenson walks on some very well-traveled ground as we observe our main character, Syd, about to take her own life. A life she can no longer stand because she simply can't silence the voices in her head. Voices that all modern science have told her are just that, in her head. Surviving her suicide attempt, which is handled with a rather harsh level of callousness that thankfully pays off in the end, she's brought into a new world of superpowers and the people that use them.

It is when Syd is introduced to her new world and life does Stephenson start to present ideas that really hook the readers interest. At their core, most superhero books are extensions of our own power fantasies. An attempt to exert some control upon our own lives. Although we mask that desire for control within the trappings of doing good for our fellow human. Were we gifted with great powers, we should help those around us, because we know how it feels to be helpless. Stephenson isn't asking these questions in this comic. Our mysterious leader and his cohorts, rightfully, know themselves to be better than the mere mortals that share the world with them. As such, why should they obey the rules that keep you and I in our place. And while they've set up their own set of rules, we are never once to assume this is for our protection. Like all things in They're Not Like Us, these rules only exist as a form of self-preservation. It's great power, but responsibility by way of Sid Vicious.

And the art is right there every step of the way. Even for an Image title, this comic has a visual style that stands above most books. Artist Simon Gane pencils with a rough but fresh style that draws heavily from European themes. Indeed, this book feels like it would be perfectly at home with the Humanoids range of titles. And while the linework from Gane may look a little rushed, it is only when you focus and study the panels do you see the real intent of the art. The art, much like the concept of the book, should make the reader feel a little off-balance. Like Syd herself, the reader is not in the safest of hands, no matter how well they tell the tale. There is also a wonderful attention to the backgrounds, when needed, that really helps sell the almost claustrophobic world that Syd is shoved into. Through the use of ever-shrinking details line into the background, we feel the pressure just as surely as the main character. And while the story takes a few pages to pay off, Gane's art is a pleasure from the very first panel.

Jordie Bellaire makes some smart coloring choices. Almost avoiding shades and gradient tones all together, Bellaire raises Gane's lines, which could have been lost with a muted color palette. Better still, by avoiding the use of heavy shading, Bellaire is stepping in line with the story and concept. For those with the power, there is no true gray. No middle ground. They are better than us, so why mask it with muted colors? Even the lettering of this book generates a feeling of roughness, but never amateur, a balance that is so rarely achieved. They're Not Like Us is an extremely impressive debut from a visual stance. While the story doesn't hook the reader immediately, Stephenson manages to ask all the right questions to elevate this comic into one people should read and certainly be excited for more.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Rocket Raccoon #6
Written by Skottie Young
Art by Jake Parker and Jean-Francois Beaulieu Lettering by Jeff Eckleberry
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Marlene Bonnelly
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

This issue revolves around two adorable talking mammals in space. Seriously, what’s not to love? With the drama and tears caused by Blackjack O’Hare behind him, it’s time for Rocket to delve back into his usual antics—this time fueled by the need to recoup funds. I always find it interesting to see glimpses of Rocket’s soft and squishy center with periods of introspection and self-doubt, but I’m glad we’re getting back to the meat that is our favorite smart-mouthed procyonid’s story. Issue #6 is all action, adventure and humor, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rocket doesn’t get along well with others; we know this. He has a particularly rocky relationship with Cosmo, however, since they’re sort of at opposite ends of the spectrum. Rocket is, after all, an intergalactic criminal-slash-savior, while Cosmo acts as the head of security for one of his frequent haunts, Knowhere. For now, however, they’ve temporarily put their grievances aside… because Rocket owes a favor. Putting these two together on the same page, having them bicker over details with broken English and heaps of impatience, is a brilliant idea on Skottie Young’s part. He nails their characterization and mannerisms, playing up Cosmo’s sympathy for refugees (which we witnessed as far back as Secret Invasion) and drawing a thread between Rocket’s tragic past with that of the mechs he’s tasked with saving. It’s a well thought out plot that leaves plenty of room for gun toting and explosions. Plus, since Rocket’s replacement traveling companion has a vocabulary even more limited than Groot’s, the focus remains on Rocket’s sharp wit and ability to lead.

We get a break from Young’s art again this issue, but that’s not a bad thing in the least. Jake Parker’s work is gorgeous in its own way: his lines are less sketchy, with rounder shapes and a classic cartoon charm that almost makes me think of Calvin and Hobbes in some panels. The way he illustrates expressions is priceless and pairs perfectly with Young’s script; it’s easy to hear the flat, accented tone of Cosmo’s voice, for instance, when he’s staring at Rocket as though the raccoon is completely beneath him. Rocket, meanwhile, is prone to exaggerated arm movements depending on his mood and flip-flops between cocky smiles or determined grimaces. Even Rocket’s mech friend, robotic as he is, gets to show anger and confusion. Jean-Francois Beaulieu’s colors are perfect, by the way. Flipping through the book is like exploring a rainbow with the way each set of pages is washed with an undertone of blue or pink or orange, bold colors that he manages to mute everywhere but in the truly busy scenes, where pops of vibrancy make the action really convincing.

Overall, is this issue especially meaningful? Probably not. Rocket and Cosmo are even now, but I can’t say that that the adventure much impact in the series. It wasn’t meant to be. It feels like a type of palette cleanser, an injection of guns and silliness that serves as a tremendously enjoyable read but that I can’t say blew me away. It’s just fun in the special, ultra-violent way that we’ve come to expect from Rocket Raccoon.

Credit: DC Comics

Green Lantern Corps #37
Written by Van Jensen
Art by Bernard Chang, Mirko Colak, Marcelo Maiolo and Tony Avina
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Despite being known for their fancy rings, it's interesting to see how few frills Green Lantern Corps and its sister titles have been getting with its "Godhead" arc, as the various Corps fight against the newly rebooted New Gods. There's a certain charm, however, to how Van Jensen, Bernard Chang and Mirko Colak make the usually overpowered Green Lanterns into the clear underdogs of this conflict, and while there's little subtext to this book's brazen fisticuffs, longtime fans will enjoy seeing Corpsman John Stewart strike back, even with his back against the wall.

Part of what makes this arc as interesting as it is also makes it less-than-accessible for new readers. Jensen, and really the Green Lantern braintrust as a whole, rely on readers knowing who the New Gods are, and recognizing that they are indeed an interstellar force that could put the Lanterns to shame. But Jensen does give Highfather just a spark of allure, if not in his characterization, in his purpose: This fight may seem like a big deal to the human Lanterns, but it's just a small detour for the New Gods, as they prepare to bring the fight back to cosmic big bad Darkseid. "You see the larger picture," Highfather says on the second page of this book, and in a way, that's what Jensen and company are asking readers to do, as well.

Perhaps the right way to look at the New Gods is less their personalities, and more their sense of scale. It doesn't hurt, in that regard, that even the power ring-wielding Green Lanterns are thrown from cell to cell, and in some cases, even transmogrified to become mindless automatons of the New Gods. (Admittedly, that's a well the Green Lantern books have been tapping a little too hard over the years, stemming back to the Red Lanterns, the Indigo Tribe, the Alpha Lanterns... you get the picture.)

But by showing that the New Gods are a threat that not even a Green Lantern ring can touch, Jensen does tap into some newfound tension for his heroes. As the protagonist of the issue, John Stewart shows he has some serious cajones, with one scene involving beating someone with a godhammer that makes up in attitude what it lacks in story logic. Ultimately, what makes you root for the Lanterns isn't so much that their ends versus the New Gods' means, or the fact that they're in trouble, or the fact that, look on the cover, this is their book - no, it all comes down to personality. The New Gods, much like their clean-cut new designs, are largely antiseptic as characters. The Lanterns, meanwhile, quip, bicker amongst themselves, come up with some unique solutions. They have personality, and it's that personality that makes you root for the underdog here.

The artwork also helps make this story feel more palatable. Even if this issue starts slowly, with Highfather giving readers an infodump about New Genesis and Darkseid, Chang's designs still look evocative, punctuated by bursts of red thanks to colorist Marcelo Maiolo. Once the Lanterns show up, however, Chang really starts to speed up, especially when John Stewart makes his best Captain America impression as he hefts a mighty shield, while Sinestro summons his power animal, a plasma sabertooth tiger. (He does struggle, however, to contain all this in his pages - as a result, the transitions featuring people teleporting by Boom Tube wind up feeling a little sudden.) Mirko Colak handles the second half of the book, and reminds me a lot of Mike McKone with his linework. Colak serves up the best scene of the book, and is buoyed by some smart use of color, presumably by the book's second colorist, Tony Avina.

The thing that holds back Green Lantern Corps - and the Green Lantern franchise as a whole - is just the fact that it has to preach to the converted rather than serve up anything tremendously new about the DC universe. And for a lot of diehards, that's fine - it just doesn't make this book a "must-read" in the way that a Batgirl or a Ms. Marvel might be. It's a book that doesn't succeed purely on execution, but instead stacks the deck with previous continuity and tremendous scale. It's fun popcorn reading, and considering how long "Godhead" is lasting, that sort of fan service serves its purpose.

Bitch Planet #1
Bitch Planet #1
Credit: Image Comics

Bitch Planet #1
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Valentine De Landro and Cris Peter
Lettering by Clayton Cowles Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

“Can one do exploitation without being exploitive?” That’s just one of the questions writer Kelly Sue DeConnick asks not only readers but herself in her most recent creator-owned book, Bitch Planet, which serves as a sci-fi imaging of the 1960s subgenre of “women in prison” (WIP) films that arose from an era that began challenging social norms. Had DeConnick and artist Valentine De Landro faithfully adhered to each of the core precepts of the subgenre, with a clear intent to titillate and tantalize their readers, then the response to this question would a resounding “No!” and arguably, the book would no doubt fall flat in comparison to reader expectations. Not surprisingly, this team seems to be poising itself to reclaim this semi-pornographic niche that often provided a vehicle for a highly fetishized male gaze, and instead, uses it as a platform for raising still other relevant and timely questions about how society views women.

Readers encounter a world where troublesome women are shipped off-planet for a host of reasons. It becomes readily apparent, however, that these reasons are often manufactured resulting in good people being sent to bad places. Even then, the question begins to percolate as to whether those who are deemed “bad” and imprisoned may not have been given much choice in the matter given the oppressive institutions reigning over them. And while DeConnick does adopt a number of the tropes of the subgenre, including the locker room fight scenes, the imprisoned innocent, and the graphic violence upon women, the twist ending is one that makes it clear there will be no satisfactory ending in the traditional sense, and it raises the question of what a “happy ending” for this book would even look like.

At first glance, this is a comic centered around prison planet full of women, many of whom are often depicted in the nude, and it does seems that this book could be playing into the type of audience interests that fuel the sales of other more salacious comics and reading material. However, De Landro’s linework and inking quickly make it apparent that this will not be the case. Readers see women of all shapes and sizes depicted. No one type is privileged over the other. Moreover, it’s worth noting the way in which he inks the characters along with the lighting provided by Cris Peter’s colors. In no way do we see the shadows creating a seductive environment, teasing readers’ sense of what lies beneath the darkness as one might encounter with a femme fatale in a noir story. Instead, the light falls naturally – sometimes flattering, and at other times, accentuating the body in a less than sensual way. De Landro and Peters use lighting and composition to focus the reader’s eye on the action of the story and not the naked or tortured bodies, which quickly differentiates this work visually from those traditionally exploitive counterparts from within the WIP subgenre.

It’s not just the art, however, that actively seeks to subvert expectations of the form. These women may be imprisoned, stripped down, and beaten; but there is no mistaking the fact they are dangerous. To be sure, dangerous characters are those who are self-empowered, and as we see by the issue’s end, it takes multiple guards to mount a failed attempt to subdue just one prisoner seeking to prevent further injustice to her fellow inmates. This scene, like others before it, positions the women of color as posing the greatest threat to the prison guards, and by extension, the enfranchised male patriarchy at work. When looking at comics on the newsstands today, one has to question how often this level of representation can be found. Keep looking because it doesn’t happen all that often.

Arguably, I think this is part of what makes DeConnick and De Landro’s story an incredibly important entry in the field of not just comics but also contemporary literature as a whole. It provides an example of women of all color coming together and publicly proclaiming themselves as empowered and dangerous beings. This shouldn’t be misunderstood as being a danger to all men, of course, but it does – as one of the covers so succinctly illustrates – raise a fist and a middle finger to those men who would subjugate and imprison women in a direct and indirect fashion for their own personal enjoyment.

I am, without reservation, anxious to see what this creative team brings next month and down the road with this nonconformist series. In Pretty Deadly, DeConnick demonstrates her ability to craft poetry within the comic form with co-collaborator Emma Rios; however, it is with De Landro at her side in Bitch Planet that the fiery and impassioned intellects of this writer and artist roar to life. Don’t bother reading this book if you aren’t prepared to feel some heat.

Guardians of the Galaxy Annual #1
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Frank Cho and Jason Keith
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Just in time for the holidays, Marvel has released its first Guardians of the Galaxy Annual which is packed with the same humor and action that we expect from their new breakout stars along with a dash of the bittersweet feelings that we all may experience around this season. Appropriately titled “Homesick,” the Brian Michael Bendis penned tale follows our favorite space displaced Avenger, Captain Marvel, as she pines for home amid the craziness that surrounds her palling around with the Guardians. But the craziness that is her new crew pales in comparison to the weirdness that arrives in the form of a vintage S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier far from Earth, crewed by Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos, and in hot pursuit of a Skrull troop transport. What the flerk, am I right?

You know where's a good place to start when discussing this comic? Grids. Captivating stuff, I assure you. Jokes aside, many have discussed Bendis’ use of these eight-panel layouts, and Guardians of the Galaxy Annual #1 is just another example for us to chew over. After a quick, but evocative, team establishing page by the wonderful Frank Cho and Jason Keith, who we will get into fully a bit later, we are greeted with a two-page, eight-panel grid of Carol recording a message for her friends back on Earth. Often Bendis has used these grids to deliver quick exposition or perhaps foster tension between two characters, but this first scene is all character moments; moments not just of Carol, but of all of the Guardians. Bendis keeps this first scene moving briskly as Carol is being hilariously disrupted by Rocket, Groot and Gamora as she tries to assure her friends that she is okay and misses Earth (and little baby Jones-Cage, of course, in a nice New Avengers callback). Cho and Keith also do their best to keep the scene visually interesting despite the repeated angle employed throughout the two pages. Thankfully, the scene never feels rote, largely due to Cho’s Tumblr-ready renditions of Carol’s expressions as she reactions to her fellow Guardians, which includes five panels of Carol faces for the ages. Carol Danvers has always been a gift that continues to give, but her inclusion in the Guardians of the Galaxy is still paying huge dividends.

This cold open, though adorable, is merely the fun preamble to a truly nutty Guardians story. After the failed attempt at a taped message, a large S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier warps into the story, bringing with it a younger Fury and a whole mess of trouble. Obviously, this is when the annual really kicks into high gear in terms of action, but Bendis still keeps the whole affair rooted in character. Though Carol is our lead throughout the story, and a compelling one at that, Bendis seems to have finally gotten a firm hold on the rest of the Guardians themselves. Rocket is a lunatic smartass with a chip on his shoulder the size of Ego the Living Planet now instead of the hacky, catch-phrase machine that he was in earlier issues. Peter Quill is the huge dork/leader than we all loved during this summer’s blockbuster instead of the living MacGuffin that he has been teased as. The Jim Steranko-inspired science fiction that makes up the main plot of this story is made all the more fun by seeing this much more confident take on the Guardians experiencing it. Guardians of the Galaxy Annual #1 is a story that may have fallen flat earlier in Bendis’ run, but now that he understands their dynamic and what makes them all compelling characters, separately and as a team, I could watch them blast Skrulls all day.

Aiding this new, gelled take on the team are the polished pencils of Cho and the flatly vibrant colors of Keith. I spoke a bit above about Cho’s amazing facial expressions, but it doesn’t just stop at funny faces for him. Cho gives this entire annual the sheen of a Hollywood blockbuster, complete with a pretty stellar artistic cameo. This comparison isn’t meant as a slight, even though the Guardians of the Galaxy title has inevitably taken more than a few cues from their cinematic counterparts. Rather Cho’s artwork for this annual, much like his other efforts, displays meticulous scene construction, like some Hollywood efforts. Take for instance the visual gags in the static cold open grid or his splashy Steranko tribute that comes toward the center of the issue. Thankfully he backs up this expectation with solid work throughout this annual. Keith also makes Guardians of the Galaxy Annual #1 feel as epic as possible with his gleaming colors and creative use of highlights. While other colorists have made the Guardians’ world look lived in and even grimy, Keith takes the direct opposite approach. Every corridor shines as well as every weapon. Jason Keith colors this annual like the peak of the science fiction ideal instead of the slapdash science fiction “reality” that has often been displayed in Guardians of the Galaxy.

We all get homesick from time to time, especially around the holidays. However, we aren’t usually thousand of light years away from our homes when we do get those kind of blues. Even though this a comic featuring a fantastically staged fight scene in space and more than a few great Rocket zingers, Guardians of the Galaxy Annual #1 succeeds because of its attention to the human details. Brian Michael Bendis, Frank Cho, and Jason Keith make the action soar simply by framing it with a woman’s desire to see home again. It’s funny the things you can accomplish just with a few eight-panel grids. Guardians of the Galaxy Annual #1 is big, crazy, and filled with laser fire, but is the human element that sustains it beyond pulpy enjoyment.

Credit: DC Comics

Batgirl #37
Written by Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher
Art by Babs Tarr, Cameron Stewart and Maris Wicks
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by Lilith Wood
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Batgirl #37 is the new creative team’s third issue and it is in keeping with the two issues that preceded it: Babs Tarr’s artwork is fun and fluid, but writers Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher often feel like they’re straining to show how very modern and youthful Barbara’s new life is. The team seemed to be settling into a more relaxed groove last issue, but have hit a snag with Batgirl #37. This issue shows that this story forgets that innocent fun and reckless ignorance can be two sides of the same coin.

Batgirl #37 starts off excitingly with a lot of bling and color - one set of beautiful women is being mean and wild in a fast car. Another set of beautiful women is being adorable and getting all dressed up to go out. Tarr’s apt cartooning keeps things light and airy, and the whole first half of the book reminds me in a happy way of the Katy Keene comics I read as a little kid in the 1980s - it's aspirational in that basic way of little kids just wanting to be grown up and be popular, to own pretty things and have fun times. Like Katy Keene with her Broadway dreams and New York modeling career, it was easy to believe back then it was impossible to be sad if you were wearing high heels.

As Batgirl #37 progresses, there is more glitter, more snark, more pretty hairstyles and cute dresses. Fletcher and Stewart stand out in their ability to feather a lot of information into the panels so that you feel like you’re reading twice as many pages, but not in a way that taxes your attention span. They fill a scene at an art gallery with conversation, details, and texts as the characters move about noticing and reacting to the art. Maris Wicks’s bold and sometimes-clashing colors also ratchet the energy up and up and up. When Barbara finally fights her bedazzled impersonator, it might be meant as a commentary on our fame-obsessed consumer culture. But it feels more like a direct appeal to the Katy-Keene-reading me that was about eleven years old and didn’t yet have a fully formed frontal lobe. I’m okay with that. Batgirl gets itself in trouble when it tries to sell itself as being more progressive and more meaningful than it really is. Then things go bad, like at the end of Batgirl #37 when Barbara’s crooked impostor turns out to be a man and everybody laughs at how pitiful he is.

The new Batgirl team set itself up by presenting itself as progressive-leaning, both in interviews and with some of its aesthetic and editorial choices. They gave Barbara a new, non-exploitative crime-fighting costume with flat boots and practical body-coverage. They gave her new, diverse friends, such as a bisexual woman of color who sometimes needs braces to walk, and a sassy girl in hijab. That’s great, but three issues in, it still feels like those types of decisions were breezily checked off a list by the writers. It often feels like the writers are batting around theme-like objects, but not exploring actual themes. We have been told that Barbara uses her brains to fight crime, but we see her getting all dolled up as online bait. We are told some of the characters might have reasons to feel marginalized, but all we see are normal, beautiful, hyper-stylish girls who travel in a pack. When the protagonists seem to sit so pretty, it signals to me that we are supposed to aspire to be them, not identify with them. And what exactly are we aspiring to that we shouldn’t already be able to see through? Meanwhile, the villain is clumsily painted to be a real transgressive weirdo with obvious weirdo ways: a mawkish, sneering, pathetic man who dresses up as a woman.

On Saturday, the creative team publicly apologized for offending people with their treatment of the transvestite villain in Batgirl #37. The “queering the villain” incident wasn’t a mis-step to apologize for and move on from though, it was a symptom. In the context of this book, inviting people to laugh along with the protagonist at a transvestite made sense. Making fun of transvestites and transgender people is still accepted in our culture, and this Batgirl run is mainstream and uncritical. It can be enjoyed for the brightness of Babs Tarr’s work, or treated like a nostalgic pleasure. But if it is smart, it’s smart like advertising. There’s a lot of grown-up talent on this book’s new creative team, but they are only playing at making Batgirl an ode to girl power.

Credit: Valiant Comics

The Valiant #1
Written by Matt Kindt and Jeff Lemire
Art by Paolo Rivera and Joe Rivera
Lettering by Dave Lanphear
Published by Valiant Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

With its cast and creators, The Valiant #1 looks likes star-studded event. Featuring Valiant heavy hitters like the Eternal Warrior, Bloodshot and Armstrong, this story of an ancient evil rising again is a perfect opportunity to introduce this comic universe to new readers. Cycling through history and around the world, Matt Kindt, Jeff Lemire and Paolo Rivera show us the Eternal Warrior Gilad's less-than-successful history in protecting the Geomancer. For every promise to the men, women and children he makes to protect them, he ultimately fails as he watches the monstrous Eternal Enemy slaughter Geomancers time and time again. Apparently the Eternal Warrior isn't very good at his job. Using the past to set up the present, the present day Geomancer has heard Gilad's promises of protection as an old evil once again rises.

Paolo Rivera's pages work so quietly, lulling you as it totally submerses you into the story. The opening pages, a trip through Gilad's many and ancient past failures, are the most stunning of the issue. Rivera's work fully displays the quiet and ultimately futile nobility of the immortal Gilad. His promises through the years and centuries to each Geomancer, moments before their own deaths, are not empty vows. Here is a warrior who means every promise he utters even as he faces an unstoppable monster. Rivera shows the pained history on Gilad's face, one bloody scar at a time. These aren't loud, brash pages that revel in the bloody scenes they're depicting. The quiet ways that Rivera draws the action sets up the inevitable doom that these characters are facing.

That quiet yet ineffective nobility is carried and played with throughout the art of the book. After opening with the many failures of Gilad, the story jumps to the present day with Kay McHenry, the current Geomancer, seeking guidance from the unlikely lout Armstrong, Gilad's equally immortal brother. One nine-panel page, each panel focusing on Kay seated and trying to explain her uncertainty about her role in the world, is one of the most exciting pages in the comic. Watching Rivera guide us through all of Kay’s thoughts and worries almost makes the words unneeded. Kay's body language and facial expressions say everything we need to know about her. Rivera uses this sequence masterfully, creating drama and action without having to resort to superheroic hysterics. And then the story jumps to Bloodshot on an island and Rivera starts using designs, shadows and poses that would make Mike Mignola proud, as the superheroic adrenaline kicks in and Rivera gets to draw pictures of fighting and mayhem.

Kindt and Lemire's story never rises above being a primer for the new Valiant Universe. The script perfunctorily marches through these characters, giving them space for exposition to state their name, rank and their mission in this world. They spend pages explaining who Gilad is. They spend pages explaining who Kay is and then they spend some more pages explaining who Bloodshot is. Finally - and oddly enough - they introduce X-O Manowar but only give him one small panel, telling us nothing about him, almost as if they ran out of room before the end of the issue. The Valiant #1 gives readers the lay of the land, but that land is predictable and well-worn.

Kindt and Lemire are so focused on making the story "new reader friendly" that they forget to include any big surprises or hooks in it. Each character is given space to state who they are. Each plot point turns over like clockwork, giving way to the next plot point. A villain is introduced in the opening pages and then the final page ends up being the reveal that the villain is back. How do you not see that coming by the time you finish the second page of the comic book? Other than the art, there's nothing in the story that functions as anything other than a handbook to the current Valiant universe.

This issue is a quarter of this series, the first issue of a planned four-issue run. It feels like a wasted issue where more should have happened. Kindt, Lemire and Rivera put together a solid comic book that serves a function but never rises above that function. Rivera’s art is stunning, as it humbly opens up a world of uncertainty and danger. The quietness of his artwork sets up for foreboding atmosphere of evil in this world. Kindt and Lemire’s story walks us through these characters, giving them all their moment in the light but it is hardly able to find anything for them to do with the spotlight. The Valiant #1 is a story of introductions, but it gets bogged down in those introductions and forgets to actually do anything with its colorful characters.

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