Best Shots Reviews: MULTIVERSITY GUIDEBOOK #1, UNCANNY AVENGERS #1, BATMAN #38, THOR #4, More

The Dying & The Dead #1 cover by Ryan Bodenheim
The Dying & The Dead #1 cover by Ryan Bodenheim
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: DC Comics

The Multiversity Guidebook #1
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Marcus To, Paulo Siqueira, Dave McCaig and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

If Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity series has demonstrated anything aside from how complex his storytelling has become, it’s how deep and rich the DC Comics universe has been over the last three-quarters of a century or so. In piecing together his carefully constructed journey through the Multiverse, Morrison has pulled on classic and otherwise forgettable comics from DC and its competitors. He has pointedly reminded us that both the creator and the reader are powerful by virtue of the layers their interaction with the medium adds to the narrative. Indeed, even humble reviews like this one add another thread to the rich relationship that we humans have with our stories. With the The Multiversity Guidebook, Morrison returns to themes he first touched upon in the first issue of The Multiversity in 2014.

To date, most issues of this series have been standalone pieces, loosely linked through the comic book artifacts that are scattered throughout the various Earths. Here the opening scenes, set on a Lil’ Gotham-inspired Earth-42, follow on from the events of last month’s The Multiversity: Thunderworld, in which the Sivanas of the Multiverse teamed up to dominate it. When the diminutive Earth-42 Batman (teaming up with Earth-17’s Batman) discovers a comic telling of the exploits of Earth-51, a world based around Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth, the narratives almost become mirror images of each other. The second half of the book is taken up with a literal guidebook to the worlds of the Multiverse, a series of flashcards with vital stats and key figures. It ultimately leads to the two worlds in question connecting, but not before more seeds are sewn for Morrison’s masterplan.

There is something of an irony in the way that Morrison has used the form of the “guidebook,” a publication usually aimed at simplifying and summarizing, to take us even deeper down the rabbit hole. As Earth-51’s BiOMAC reads a comic book, he learns of the history of the Flash, and of the various Crises and Flashpoints in time and space that lead to the creation of the current Multiverse. In other words, he catches up with what we readers already know. Indeed, as each of the characters becomes self-aware, it’s through the act of reading. Even in his own bottle story within a story, the Flash is reading of the adventures of a previous speedster to carry that name. Like all good comics, there are characters we the readers are meant to relate to, and in a story as complex as this one, what else could it be but a comic book geek?

The principal art duties are from Marcus To (for the Batmen section) and Paulo Siqueira (Kamandi), although each of the guidebook entries has its own pinup artists that include the likes of Nicola Scott, Gary Frank, David Finch, Cameron Stewart, Bryan Hitch, Jae Lee, Darwyn Cooke, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, and too many others to mention here. Marcus To does an excellent job of marrying the chibi figures from Lil’ Gotham with the more traditional figures of the other Earths. Of course, he gets to have a fair bit of fun with the multiple Sivanas, especially one who is simply a snake in a labcoat and glasses. Siqueira, on the other hand, has the unenviable job of following Kirby’s style, a task he proves to be more than skilled at, with men and beasts that could have been plucked straight from comic book history. This issue is also the first to direct incorporate the highly circulated Map of the Multiverse that has been used in marketing since the first announcement of the series.

“Of the Over-Void is Monitor born and Anti-Monitor, which is the opposite, the Conflict generator, the Story Machine. Monitor-Mind...acts to contain The Flaw.”

As the series progresses, one wonders if Morrison sees himself as burdened with this glorious purpose. After all, he spends much of this issue almost obsessively cataloguing the gateways to other realms and stories. Opening the door to an infinite number of stories, while warning us of the dangers of the "forces" that threaten to make them homogenous, what Morrison has accomplished with this mammoth 70-plus page The Multiversity Guidebook, and with the series more broadly, is nothing short of breathtaking.

Uncanny Avengers #1 preview
Uncanny Avengers #1 preview
Credit: CBR / Marvel Comics

Uncanny Avengers #1
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Daniel Acuna
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The next chapter in Rick Remender’s saga looks to explore some of the fallout from Axis and the previous volume of Uncanny Avengers. With Havok out, the focus has shifted to Wanda and Pietro, the brother-sister duo that have just had their worlds turned upside-down. Remender has an interesting set of characters here and the dynamics play pretty well from the outset. By partnering with an immense and familiar talent in Daniel Acuna, the script should really sing and it does in stops and starts. The problems mount in some of the characterizations and larger machinations of the plot.

I don’t think Remender gets enough credit. He’s a master storyteller that seems to be continually overshadowed by his peers like Jonathan Hickman and Jason Aaron, yet he’s delivering stories just as large in scope and impact as theirs. This issue frames the opening arc of this volume as a search for answers. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe and comic universes starting to wing together, there is a united front to create some semblance of continuity between the two. Marvel Studios’ lack of mutants in their films has led to a renaissance of sorts for the Inhumans, but as we see here, it also opens the door for more marginalized Avengers villains such as the High Evolutionary. And Remender handles that aspect with aplomb. While the shift in Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver’s may have been editorially mandated, he makes their unrest seem natural instead of shoehorned in awkwardly as it was during Axis.

But the weakest points of the issue have their origins there, too. Our heroes are acting under the knowledge that their personalities have been inverted and on some level, that doesn’t make them a very likable bunch. Outside of Wanda and Pietro, I don’t think Remender has a great handle on the rest of the cast’s voices, and that hurts the issue. The plot itself gets into some slightly more obscure Marvel elements that, I think, do require a little bit of knowledge. Remender holds back on being too expository and it helps the flow of the issue, but definitely makes it a bit confusing for the uninitiated.

Acuna’s stock has been rising rapidly since his first stint on Uncanny Avengers, and we’re reminded here why the man has superstar written all over him. His expressions shine through the interactions in the script and helps sell a couple moments that a lesser artist may not be able to pull off. The dynamism of his work shifts to suit the characters on the page instead of taking a wholesale approach. The result is a book that has a lot of varied looks but with a consistent visual signature. Acuna handles all the art here - pencils, inks and colors- and it’s that purity of vision that stands out. Even when Acuna riffs on another artist (there are a couple of moments clearly indebted to Jack Kirby), he does so with his own style at the forefront. That’s hard to achieve.

Uncanny Avengers #1 is a bold relaunch that really does explore a new status quo for these characters. As Remender becomes more familiar with this post-Axis team dynamic, we’ll see stories that rival his previous work. There are seeds of greatness here but it’s impossible to predict how they’ll grow. Hopefully, Acuna is on the book for the long haul, as his distinct approach is really what makes this issue great, and he and Remender are starting to become creators that I link as an unstoppable pair in my mind. Uncanny Avengers isn’t all there yet but you'll be kicking yourself for not getting in on the (relaunched) ground floor.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #38
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia
Lettered by Steve Wands and Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by Brendan McGuirk
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Do you prefer Batman the detective or Batman the adventurer? Do you generally take note of the distinction? What about the Joker, do you think he has a preference as to which Batman he squares off against? Because, near as I can tell, Batman the adventurer has an undefeated record against the Joker. But against Batman the detective, the Joker still has the edge. After all, Batman has never solved the Joker’s greatest mystery.

Detective stories and adventure stories don’t always make the perfect match. Adventure begs for kinetic set-pieces, fights and furious pacing. Detective stories demand mystery – a thriller needs time for pressure to concentrate and build. An adventure is decided by an action, but a mystery can only resolve through realization. More often than not, when creators are forced to decide between putting Batman in adventure stories or detective ones, they take the adventurous route. It’s the surer path, given the way superhero comics’ visual nature lend themselves to colorful backdrops and dynamic action sequences. Seeding a mystery over a long enough time, with great enough detail to make the eventual reveal truly pay off, is a challenge in ongoing superhero comics. Instead of a whodunit-of-the-month, the more satisfying mysteries to explore are the ones that reach deep into the readers’ imaginations. Not ones that were brought up four issues ago, but ones they’ve pondered for as long as they’ve read up on their favorite heroes and villains’ adventures.

There are components integral to a great Joker story. It’s got to involve madness going viral, and it needs a punchline or three. But the question of how Batman will defeat Gotham’s clown prince of crime this time is never nearly as compelling as the ultimate question – who is the Joker? And how did he come to be? That’s the mystery at the heart of “Endgame.” Yes, there is an adventure afoot. Gotham is imperiled, poisoned by the latest strand of Joker laughing toxin. But Batman’s biggest challenge remains solving the mystery of the man he can never come to understand.

When Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, et al. took over Batman, one of their early promises was to tell Joker stories that had never been told before. With “Endgame,” they are making good on that promise, weaving in details from the characters’ long history with their own newly streamlined mythos while teasing out some heretofore unknown hints about the Joker. Nothing is made certain, only suggested, giving readers the same maddening sense of tantalization the caped crusader himself would feel when so confounded.

Batman may be a “dark” character, but reading Batman needn’t be a dark experience, and it’s hard to think of a time where that balance between Batman and Gotham City’s shadowy nature and the whimsical fun that make the Dark Knight so popular with basically everyone better represented on the page than it is here. Capullo and inker Danny Miki might well be defining the look and feel of a Batman story for a generation with this prolonged work. Batman is sturdy and stoic, but not so joyless that the occasional one-liner feels out of place. FCO Plascencia mutes his palette some here, saving the electric hues for the moments that a realization needs to set itself apart from the burnt din of Gotham during danger. The consistency of this title’s look has been a huge part of its success, no issue feels like it takes a shortcut or a breather.

Snyder and Capullo’s latest Joker story is fascinating, but getting there, in this issue at least, demanded a fair bit of exposition. There are pacing sacrifices to be made when trying to tell a story as sprawling as this one. Here, the Joker’s poison is not merely a pun to be unpacked, but a realization of a great deal of story told over the entire current Batman run. The virus brought on by the poison is actually constructed much like the narrative has been – plucking meaningful details from the ongoing Bat-mythos in order to deliver the most potent, resonant wallop. Its origins were seeded not only throughout this current storyline, but over the Joker’s long history. It doesn’t feel like a contradiction of past stories, it feels like a coy addition, a new possibility for the one opponent that the Batman can stop but never defeat.

I don’t have a preference between caped crusader and dark detective. My favorite Batman stories are just the ones where he’s got the steepest challenge. And the thing about Joker stories is they just seem to get steeper all the time.

Thor #4 cover by Russell Dauterman
Thor #4 cover by Russell Dauterman
Credit: Marvel Comics

Thor #4
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

"Um, yeah, no! Bad call! He loves his hammer!"

It was a line said in jest in the movie Avengers, but it turns out that Tony Stark might have been closer to the mark than he thought when it came to Thor. The original one, that is. Waking up one arm lighter and with no Uru hammer in sight, the Odinson is ticked off and ready to rumble - especially when he discovers his prized weapon Mjolnir has been shackin' up with another so-called God of Thunder. In the true Marvel manner, Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman weave together a gorgeously-drawn story of hero versus hero, even if their conflict is stirred by a homewrecker of a hammer.

In many ways, this issue of Thor feels like a passing of the baton - or the hammer - from one lead character to the next. The issue starts off with Aaron typing up some final loose ends on the original Thor's new status quo, as he's gifted a Dark Uru arm to replace the one that was cut off a few issues ago. But beyond that, it's immediately a cut to his replacement, as the new Thor winds up going head-to-head against the original one. Who knew that the Odinson was so attached to his hammer? It's almost funny, in certain ways, how temperate the new Thor is versus her more impetuous predecessor.

(And it's definitely funny - perhaps not intentionally - how heartbroken Thor is over his mallet. "In all our years together...in all our many battles...Mjolnir never flew like that for me." Thor. Let it go, man. This is when you sign up for JDate.)

Russell Dauterman, meanwhile, continues to impress, although he's slightly hemmed in when it comes to the sudden shift in Aaron's script. The past three issues have been huge and larger than life with both the action and the characters, as we've had minotaurs and Frost Giants towering over our Asgardian heroes. Here, pitting Thor against Thor, it's all a little bit closer to the ground, so that change in scale may be take a little bit to get used to. Still, Dauterman is intensely expressive with all of his characters, and there's a great panel where the new Thor blocks the Odinson's axe with her hammer. (And whoever is doing the sound effects - I assume it's Joe Sabino - they look superb, really drawing the eye to where the high-flying mallet is headed.) That said, by the end of the issue, it feels like Dauterman is desperately trying to cram in some of Aaron's script, making it a little too easy to miss moments like Malekith fleeing in a portal or Freyja and the Avengers being discovered in ice.

What works about Thor #4, despite an admittedly goofy undertone with a hammer, is showing off the differences between the old Thor and the new. The new Thor may be inexperienced, but she's ultimately a more level-headed hero than the original model, who flies off the handle even more now that his title is in question. But it's a nice bit of meta-commentary that Aaron has proven the viability of his new heroine, even if she has to tear the hammer from the old Thor's hands. Ultimately, when it comes to the politics of an Uru hammer, nobody likes a Thor loser, but it's nice to see that with this battle royale, Aaron and Dauterman are still kicking a ton of Asgardian.

Harley Quinn #14 cover by Amanda Conner
Harley Quinn #14 cover by Amanda Conner
Credit: DC Comics

Harley Quinn #14
Written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti
Art by Chad Hardin and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by John J. Hill
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Harley Quinn may have begun as the creation of an animated series, but Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s series has ensured that she will forever have a life of her own. Not that she would ever admit to needing their help per se, with the fiercely independent character already a star of several of her own series, and a fan-favorite across multiple franchises. Yet what Conner and Palmiotti’s series does is get her back to a twisted version of her cartoon roots, choosing to be bound by the rules of reality and the rest of the New 52 only when it suits the lead character.

With a brief and wonderfully indulgent “crossover” with the creators’ version of Power Girl now done and dusted, we’re returned to the regular programming of talking stuffed beavers, sentient eggs on robotic gorillas and romantic misadventures. “A Day in the Life” takes a page out of those morning cartoons, placing Harley in a serious of comically manic situations that all seem to be happening at once. Her work interferes with both her dating life and her membership in a roller derby squad (of course), and this issue works because it sits where the series works best: Harley trying to spin all of those plates at full speed.

One curious thing this issue reminds us of, is that under all the various layers of crazy, Harley Quinn is a qualified psychiatrist. Indeed, she spends much of this issue “in costume” as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, treating the poor saps who are literally crazy enough to wind up in front of her. It’s an interesting approach for what amounts to a character-based issue, and it’s interesting to see where Conner and Palmiotti find the lines between the psycho and psychiatrist. It’s left up to the reader to decide which one is her actual mask, although it’s likely we are all on the same page on that issue. Yet it’s this humanizing of Harley that allows us to feel some sense of pathos for the character, and allows a “villain” to sustain her own title for so long.

Chad Hardin continues to rubber band his way through some of the most unlikely of scenarios ever. Showing his versatility with every other page, what begins as a very cartoonish sequence of unlikely events, with exaggerated poses such as a manly shirt-ripping, somehow manages to segue into something more serious without missing a beat. At one stage Harley has to give CPR to a patient, and Hardin handles the tonal shift to professional career as stylishly as the authors do. Equal parts sexy, hilarious and at times disturbing, it is difficult to think of another artist (beyond Conner herself) who would be more suited to this material.

Harley Quinn #14 is a perfect jumping-on point for anyone curious to see what all the fuss about this title is. It perfectly encapsulates why the character has taken on such a massive fan base, and showcases all the major tenants that this series is built around. For ongoing readers, who knows that this book works best as a series of loosely connected one-shots, it was a nice break from the longer story arcs before she embarks on a quest to “harmonificate” her life.

The Dying & The Dead #1 cover by Ryan Bodenheim
The Dying & The Dead #1 cover by Ryan Bodenheim
Credit: Image Comics

The Dying and the Dead #1
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Ryan Bodenhiem and Michael Garland
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The best writers take an audience’s expectations and subvert them until they are unrecognizable. Jonathan Hickman is one of those writers. He is the writer that took the superhero antics of the Fantastic Four and molded them into a tense, emotional family drama. He is also the writer that presented his book The Nightly News as a straightforward action yarn, while actually delivering a scathing and meticulously researched satire of the media. The first issue of his new Image Comics title, The Dying and the Dead, starts off with a massive misdirect and continues on from there, confidently laying the groundwork and introducing our leads with dialogue that would feel right at home within a hardened noir or modern western. This debut issue from Hickman, Ryan Bodenhiem, and Michael Garland suggests a title about choices, consequences, and the fragility of life in the face of death, but something tells me that it will be about much, much more before it is all said and done.

This issue begins with an extended cold open that more than bears a passing resemblance to the deadly finale of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which a wedding also goes horribly wrong. However, Hickman isn’t content in a simple homage, opting instead to deliver a jarring left turn right at the start, just to remind the reader that only Hickman knows the way forward and we are just lagging behind. The year is 1969 and a beautiful wedding ceremony has just concluded on the Greek isle of Skorpidi; the bride and groom have retired to their bridal suite as the party continues outside.

From the first page, Ryan Bodenheim impresses with wide, Polaroid-esque panels that use negative space to capture the idyllic nature of the setting. Bodenheim also takes a minimalist approach to this cold open, choosing to fill each panel either with a single tight shot of a single focal point, such as the bride and groom or the band, and other panels are simply wind establishing shots of the villa or the waterfront. Colorist Michael Garland also does some very interesting things with the cold open, casting the first scenes depicting the ceremony in a pale blue representing the twilight of the evening before switching to a pale pink to highlight the joy of the reception. This cold open starts impressive and slowly ramps up the pace just with a few simple color changes and it only gets better from there.

As the couple retires to their marriage bed, a squad of masked agents make landfall on the island, their arrival and actions cast in a heavy, blood red - another fantastic coloring choice by Garland. Soon, the squad opens fire on the wedding’s guests and barge their way into the villa to confront the newly married couple. This is where the shock of the first issue takes place. During the cold open, a narration had been unfolding, expounding on how marriage is a sort of symbiosis, becoming “a fertile ground in which you both flourish,” but it never lasts as long as you hope. As a reader, I had assumed that this narration belonged to that of the man who was just married, thinking that this was some possible deal that had gone south or perhaps a bold move from one of his rivals. Instead, the leader of the gunmen looks exactly the same as the man's wife, and we are introduced to our MacGuffin, a wooden box known as Bah al’Sharur; hidden away behind a false wall amid historical artifacts and forgotten Nazi stonework. The team leaves the island, leaving no survivors, and the opening credits roll between the panels. We, however, aren’t even halfway done yet.

The story picks up two weeks later in New Mexico as we are introduced to our protagonist, Col. Edward Canning, as he sits next to his dying wife, hoping against hope that the changes that he has noticed are real and not just all in his head. Here is when Hickman throws us our second curveball of the issue, in that Edward is approached by an etheral looking being with milky white skin, dressed all in white, and given the opportunity to save his wife... for a price unknown, of course. Here Hickman starts to seed in the fantastical elements of The Dying and the Dead little by little. Canning is then wisked away to meet the Bishop, deep within an underground city that seems to grow from massive trees populated by the same beings. He is offered a deal; recover an artifact close to the race, the Bah al’Sharur, and receive the way in which to cure his wife.

Hickman, of course, plays his cards very close in this debut issue, teasing the audience with mere hints of Canning’s connection with the underground society, their timelessness, and the day in which their eternal city burned. The Dying and the Dead #1, naturally, doesn’t offer anything narratively solid, save for the introduction to the leads and the object in which they are all after, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is the palatable mood and hook that Hickman and his art team introduce. Hickman has always been a writer that is very skilled at grabbing an audience tight with a first issue and daring them to come back for more while trying to suss out what exactly is going on and The Dying and the Dead #1 may be the purest example of this in recent memory. The first issue leaves much up to the imagination but gives you just enough of a taste of the story that you can’t help but mull it over and wait to see just what craziness this team has in store for you next time.

The Dying and the Dead #1 is a fantastic-looking book just on the surface level. Even if it wasn’t scripting as well as it is, it would still be worthy of your attention due to the Steve Dillion-like pencils of Ryan Bodenhiem and the narrative-driven color choices, but this being a Hickman book, you get all of that, plus a brisk, entertaining script from one of the more insane and engaging writers working today. The main narrative thread running throughout The Dying and the Dead #1 is that of choice; making choices and living with that choice even in the face of dire consequences. Thankfully, audiences have a clear path in front of them, one that leads them to a fantastically put together comic that will challenge their expectations and deliver a narrative experience that will leave them gasping for more.

Gotham Academy #4 cover by Karl Kerschl
Gotham Academy #4 cover by Karl Kerschl
Credit: DC Comics

Gotham Academy #4
Written by Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher
Art by Karl Kerschl, Msassyk and Serge LaPointe
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

It’s pretty much decided that I would bend over backwards to be a student at Gotham Academy. From the gorgeous campus, to the interesting people that inhabit it, to the variety of teachers and faculty that roam the school, writers Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher have made this school come to life. They’re able to mix the best parts of high school drama with mystery and the mystical to make Gotham Academy have serious potential to target younger audiences.

The best part of Gotham Academy though has to be the coloring. Don’t get me wrong, the pencils and breakdowns are well done, with the exception that everyone seems to have the same body time, but it’s the colors that really bring this comic forward in quality. It doesn’t matter if it’s night or day or wherever these characters are, colorists Msassyk and Serge LaPointe make everything look incredible. There’s a certain luminescence to the colors that works, especially when there are light sources like flashlights, stage lighting, and candles in the backgrounds. It’s hard to exactly describe in words what makes this coloring so great, but it’s just awesome to look at page to page and it’s amazing how they use predominant colors like blues and oranges and greens throughout the entire issue and still have it feel coherent.

Even though we still don’t know a lot about these characters, they’re quirky and interesting enough for us to keep with it. Olive and Maps continue to be a wonderful team together, supporting each other despite Olive’s relationship hiccups. Cloonan and Fletcher make a smart choice in so far as that Olive’s romance is pushed to the peripherals of the story and the focus remains on this mystery. Unfortunately, the issue doesn’t pick up too much traction or momentum until the end when the search for the mysterious symbol starts to go somewhere. There were tangents throughout the issue, which feels more like Cloonan and Fletcher hinting that the story will get bigger, but they just detracted from story, especially since the relevance of some tangents were lost.

Despite the high school drama having good content, the characters’ relationships and this mystery plot don’t remain balanced. While it’s interesting to see Olive confront some of the other students about the ghost and other issues, they don’t really push forward the plot in any meaningful way, which is another reason why this issue doesn’t get any momentum until the end. We’re still left in the dark about a lot of things and Cloonan and Fletcher don’t follow through on several points, nor do they connect them in any meaningful and obvious way. It’s one thing to put everything out on the board and expect readers to connect the dots themselves, but we still just don’t know enough to do it on our and that makes us focus on trying to figure out what’s just happened instead of anticipating what’s going to happen next.

Don’t feel bad if the ending leaves you feeling a bit confused. Though it looks like the next few issues of Gotham Academy are going to be exciting, it’ll take tremendous effort on Cloonan and Fletcher’s part to adequately explain everything that’s going on and how it’s possible. A boarding school for teenagers is probably one of the most “realistic” and grounded settings in any of the DC books right now. That hasn’t stopped the writers from introducing more and more out there stuff, with this ending the most recent and biggest to date – after all, the possibility of a haunting at an academy isn’t that impossible in the confines of the DC Universe. All in all, Gotham Academy continues to chug along as the engine that could and there are high hopes for it to get even bigger and better than it already is.

Advance Review!

The Black Hood #1 cover by Michael Gaydos
The Black Hood #1 cover by Michael Gaydos
Credit: Archie Comics

The Black Hood #1
Written by Duane Swierczynski
Art by Michael Gaydos and Kelly Fitzpatrick
Lettering by Rachel Deering
Published by Archie Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

What happens when heroism leads to tragedy? What happens when pride turns into self-destruction? And what happens when you can't look yourself in the mirror anymore?

These are all the questions that sum up The Black Hood #1, the bleak first offering from Archie's new line of Dark Circle Comics. I don't say that as a pejorative, however - Duane Swierczynski and Michael Gaydos paint a particularly compelling lead character with Officer Gregory Hettinger, long before he puts on that tattered black cowl. This comic is dark, gritty and sometimes even depressing, but damn if you can't empathize with its lead character before its final page.

While the first couple of pages feel like Swierczynski and Gaydos are still finding their rhythm together, it's to their credit that The Black Hood gets to the point fast. Hettinger is a cop who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty to preserve law and order - as he stops an altercation, he tells us, "All I could think about where the little kids in that school building. Reading. Playing. Listening to their teacher. No idea what was going on outside. If one stray round popped the wrong window..." Hettinger is a fascinating protagonist because he sees things - including himself - in absolute black and white, and his entire world is about to be thrown into shades of gray.

Swierczynski writes his hero like he's in a Greek tragedy, and in some cases, maybe the comparison is accurate. It doesn't take long for Hettinger to fall into the abyss, his face torn apart by an errant shotgun blast, and his soul torn apart by guilt as he realizes he may have shot the wrong man. There's so much for Hettinger to hate in his life, and it's that fall from grace that truly defines The Black Hood. When you can't talk, are in constant pain, and have lost that most basic of human contact thanks to a face full of gristly scars, what's to stop you from escaping into your home, into drugs, into a haunting, torn-up mask? That's the beauty of The Black Hood - right now, the only big bad is Hettinger himself.

You might be as shocked as anyone to see an artist like Michael Gaydos working on an Archie book, but for The Black Hood, he turns out to be an inspired pick. Admittedly, action isn't his forte - the first couple of pages leading into Hettinger's firefight, for example, feel a little too distant, and his photo-referenced style becomes a little too evident in the blood-sprinkled aftermath of the shooting. But once Hettinger is in the hospital and on the mend, Gaydos' sense of drama looks incredible. He makes Hettinger look ugly, but not comically so, and there is a splash page of Hettinger sitting in his apartment with the Black Hood that is totally haunting. Some may say that his style is just a bit too hyper-rendered for their tastes, but considering the dark, crime-ridden city of "Killadelphia," I think he's an appropriate pick.

Haunted antiheroes are a dime a dozen in comics, but what gets me the most about The Black Hood is how aware its protagonist is of his own damnation. It's hard to beat up on Hettinger any more than he himself already has - his self-loathing is powerful, potent, and perhaps most importantly, doesn't diminish from him as a relatable character. Superheroism is often seen in comics as empowering, as an escape, but here, it feels like a symptom of a deeper sickness. There's something magnetic about watching this character lose himself, bit by bit, until there's nothing left. That's the secret of The Black Hood. It's not just a mask - it's a reflection of the man underneath.

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