Best Shots Reviews: THOR #5, SECRET SIX #2, DARTH VADER #1, BATMAN ETERNAL #45, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #14

Batman Eternal #45
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Thor #5
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jorge Molina
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Kelly Richards
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Bringing together a number of storylines but by no means tying off all of the loose ends, Thor #5 sees the Goddess of Thunder once again expected to prove her worth to those who have no business questioning it in the first place. Odinson makes little headway in his mission to discover the true identity of this new hammer-wielder via the route of too much mead and, seemingly sinking into madness and behaving like a petulant child, while Odin continues to struggle with the reality of his son’s loss of Mjolnir. Playing the fall of one Thor off against the rise of another continues to make for an interesting narrative as Thor navigates concepts of worth - both in the way characters see themselves and the way in which they are viewed by those around them.

While enjoyable as a whole, there is something incredibly charming about the way Jason Aaron writes Thor, particularly the juxtaposition between Thor’s newly Asgardian speech and her very ordinary inner monologue. It provides a depth a character that results in the new Thor being both likable and relatable in a way that often eluded Odinson. She is fierce and capable but also vulnerable and human. Aaron’s dialogue, while always sharp and witty is especially poignant as he deals with sexism while still providing a fun and engaging narrative. In a superbly orchestrated moment of mid fight dialogue, Absorbing Man is used as a mouthpiece for every angry nerd-bro who couldn’t quite process how Thor could possibly be a woman. Echoing their sentiments he exclaims, “Damn feminists are ruining everything!” Thor responds in the way many women wish they could - with a solid left hook. While some may feel that the inclusion of this social commentary is a little on the nose, Aaron handles it in such a humorous manner it’s hard to imagine anyone taking offence.

Guest artist Jorge Molina draws the new Thor with such a graceful swagger. She no longer appears intimidated by the responsibilities placed upon her when she lifted Mjolnir and instead seems cocky and confident in her abilities, all of which is reflected in her posture and expression. Molina’s artwork is remarkably elegant with the action sequences that resemble dances and backgrounds that are hazy and highly detailed, giving the book a softness that is not often associated with superhero titles. The color palette used is quite delicate in its tone and works so well. The warm reds and oranges used for the for the royal dining hall transition wonderfully into the cool blues and purples of the lunar landscape and really help in setting the mood. However, some may argue that while the color work is fantastic, its application can be used to cover a multitude of sins, particularly those where the pencil work may not be quite as polished as one would expect were this issue drawn by series regular Russell Dauterman.

But beyond these quibbles, Thor #5 is definitely an issue for the girls – Thor, Titania, Freya, and Sif all make their presence, and inability to suffer fools known within the pages of #5. These are not identikit women, and each possesses an agency and speaks with a voice all of her own. Whether beating down B-list bad guys or partaking in a little girl talk on the moon, these women are getting stuff done in ways the boys can only dream of.

Credit: DC Comics

Secret Six #2
Written by Gail Simone
Art by Ken Lashley, Drew Geraci and Jason Wright
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The DC Universe has been a decidedly less fun place without the Secret Six. Gail Simone’s ragtag group of dangerous and flirty reprobates struck all kinds of cords with readers during its pre-Flashpoint run, but after the temporal dust had settled, audiences thought that that had been the last we had seen of Catman, Scandal, and the rest of their grubby lot. Then the impossible happened and Secret Six returned in a big honking way, and #2 continues that freight-train momentum that the debut issue hit stands with. Secret Six #2 moves at a sprint from page one, and doesn’t let up once as Simone gives us a harrowing look into Catman’s recent past, as well as the new incarnation of the Six finally congealing as a team and kicking wholesale tuchus in the process. We have missed you, Secret Six, and from the way this second issue reads, so has Gail Simone.

Secret Six #2 opens with a flashback to 18 months ago as Catman is forced into Project: Mockingbird, but not without a scrap. This flashback runs concurrently to the A-story of the issue, which finds our team still facing the question “What is the secret?” with no answer in sight and facing another deadly elimination. Gail Simone juggles these plots effortlessly, but also allows for the Catman flashbacks to inform the main plot. Catman isn’t the same dashing, smarmy Catman that we knew and loved from the previous series. Here he is close to his breaking point, and Simone shows us why in somewhat graphic detail as he is thrown into solitary confinement for a solid year after attempting to bite off the fingers of his mysterious captor. Simone’s flashbacks detail the lowest points of this year, while cutting back to the present as the Six attempt to make their escape with Catman barely hanging on, repeating that he “can’t be confined” anymore. While the ticking clock of the Six’s underwater predicament is the real danger, it is nice to see that Simone still cares about these characters enough to throw them through the ringer, in order to allow them to triumph in a big way later on.

While Catman takes a majority of the page time in this book, Simone isn’t playing favorites in Secret Six #2. This second issue wastes no time forcing the team into a situation in which they have to trust each other and use their individual skill sets in order to survive without an “elimination.” Gail Simone has always been great at showing you why a team not only comes together personally, but in the field as well, as she gives each team member a moment to display their powers and what they bring to the table in terms of field operations. Secret Six #2 is just another example of Simone’s understanding of team books and how each member can be used to their fullest potential. If this second issue is any indication, the Secret Six can more than hold a candle to the “Justice Dorks” in a scrap.

Gail Simone’s scripts always crackle with a natural energy, but much of Secret Six #2's raw kinetic energy comes from artist Ken Lashley, inker Drew Geraci, and colorist Jason wright. Lashley’s rough hewn, Rafael Albuquerque-like pencils, coupled with the heavy inks of Geraci nail the urgency of the situation and offer a compelling brand new look for the title and characters. Lashley’s pages look as if they are constantly shifting and his characters hide a coolly manic energy behind their eyes as if they are preparing to leap from the page at any moment. While his panel layouts are standard gridded fair, the action and character renderings contained therein are more than interesting enough to hold a readers attention; even the attention of a Secret Six purist who is used to clean lines and costumes. Jason Wright’s splashes of watercolor-like colors are also a treat as he uses all sorts of colors that one wouldn’t expect from a main imprint title. The entire book is drenched in pale pinks, burnt oranges, a myriad of blues, and pitch blacks. Secret Six #2 may carry the regular DC logo on its cover, but the artwork found inside looks more like a Dark Horse or Dynamite book, and that is just fine by me.

Rejoice, fans and lovers alike, the Secret Six have returned and the DC Universe is all the better/weirder for it. Gail Simone made a bold choice bringing back the Six for the New 52, but based on the first two issues, she has made the most of it by tossing the majority of the first title out and striking out to tell a new story with a new set of characters. Secret Six #2 has all the hallmarks of what made the last series so easy to connect to; a large, slightly insane main story populated by interesting characters that are shippable as all hell. We still have miles to go with this new Secret Six title, but this second issue confidently shows that Simone and her team are walking the right path.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Darth Vader #1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Salvador Larocca and Edgar Delgado
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

We've all seen the light of Jason Aaron and John Cassaday's Star Wars #1, and now it's time for a trip to the dark side with Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca's Darth Vader #1. Although it is visually stunning, thanks to the very nature of its eponymous black-clad protagonist, this debut issue rings a little hollow.

Following the destruction of the first Death Star, Darth Vader has a problem. The Rebel Alliance is gaining in strength, causing The Emperor to lose trust in his faithful apprentice. With his position in The Galactic Empire in jeopardy, Lord Vader returns to his home planet of Tattooine to demand an audience with Jabba the Hutt...

Whilst it's fun to see the gluttonous Jabba trade barbarously veiled threats with the Dark Lord, in making such a villainous character the focus of his own ongoing, we're robbed of the ability to empathize with him. It's the same problem that some writers run into when trying to tackle Deadpool; Darth Vader isn't an antihero, he is unequivocally the bad guy. To his credit, Gillen attempts to make us root for Vader by casting a mirror on him, offering insight in how the Imperials and their allies see him. In one of the best moments of the book, Jabba calls Vader “the Emperor's bludgeon,” and the Emperor himself spends an entire meeting berating Vader for his failure to fend off the Rebel attack on the first Death Star. As it was during Vader and the Emperor's scenes in the original trilogy, the tension here is palpable until, of course, we remember the events of Return of the Jedi.

Which brings us to another core problem with Darth Vader #1: We all know the story. Darth Vader's entire rise and fall is the focus of six movies, and it's the absolute epitome of black-and-white story-telling. He was a good guy, he turns bad, then he eventually sacrifices himself for the greater good. In Darth Vader #1, Vader is a horrible man who does horrible things. It's true to character, but it doesn't make for a gripping story. It'll take some convincing to prove that the character can hold up an entire ongoing series by himself.

Although penciller Salvador Larocca renders each beloved character in startling detail, they often seem static and immovable. Each panel is precisely detailed and well-composed, but lacks the fluidity of movement necessary for action sequences and facial expressions. The scene where Vader effortlessly cuts down Jabba's henchmen especially suffers, as the quick and efficient slashes of Vader's lightsaber are reduced to frozen action-figure-esque poses. His widely cut panels evoke the wide reach of the cinema screen, giving these larger-than-life characters room to leer across the page. Colorist Edgar Delgado's effective use of color gradients bring to mind the lighting of a movie set, which adds to the “ripped straight from the screen” tone that this title absolutely nails.

Kieron Gillen rose to prominence with his excellent characterization of Marvel's finest heroes, and his depictions of the villains of the rich Star Wars universe are equally on target. Although his dialogue is well-written, I can't help but feel like it's also well-trodden ground for Star Wars, and I don't think it's unfair to crave for something a little more unique. With Darth Vader #1, Kieron Gillen has proven to the world that he has the chops to pull these legendary characters off. Now that he's established himself, let’s hope that the Lucasfilm Story Group lets the reins go a little so he can truly make his mark on this rebooted Star Wars Expanded Universe.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman Eternal #45
Written by Ray Fawkes
Art by Javi Fernandez and Dan Brown
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Ray Fawkes redeems himself a bit this week with a better script that takes a more balanced approach to juggling each of Batman Eternal’s plotlines and characters. A big reason for the improvement is artist Javi Fernandez, whose artwork lives somewhere between Rafael Albuquerque and Patrick Gleason when it’s at its best. Fawkes is tasked with finally revealing our big bad but rather than enthrall, the revelation is a little bit of a head-scratcher. Still, this issue features some decent character work that helps prop up otherwise pedestrian narrative work.

Batman Eternal has essentially seen Batman whittle down the list of potential masterminds over the course of these issues but the revelation here only serves to throw the overall Batman timeline into further turmoil. Plus considering the character usage in another recent mini-event, it seems like a waste to double-down here. Despite this, Fawkes makes up for a poor outing last week with a couple of great scenes. First, a scene between Batwing and Jim Corrigan sets up a conversation between Batwing and Bruce that sets up some very interesting potential for Luke Fox. Batwing was glossed over pretty quickly in the last issue but Fawkes is quick to flesh out the effects that the Batman Eternal plot has had on him. Second, Stephanie Brown and Harper Row pick up where we last left them and the scene works to draw a couple of lines in the sand between them philosophically. Some readers might have bemoaned the addition of another Robin-esque sidekick character in Bluebird as well as the new status quo for Stephanie Brown but this issue gives more context to how they both fit into the Bat-family, for better or for worse. Julia Pennyworth and Bruce have a nice little moment as well. Even though, I think the overall road to this big reveal was haphazard and poorly thought-out narratively, I give Fawkes a lot of credit for letting the characters shine through in this installment.

Javi Fernandez is an artist I’d like to see more from. Despite the character work in the script, there’s still a fair amount of action, and Fernandez handles it with aplomb. I mentioned Albuquerque and Gleason before, and those comparisons have a lot to do with the energy inherent in the panels and the deep black inking that appears consistently throughout. Fernandez is so efficient with his line work that his panels never really feel overcrowded despite whatever is going on in the scene and there’s a great bit while Batman and Batwing have a discussion that Fernandez sells us a whole other conversation in the background using silhouettes alone. It’s a very quick sequence but it helps the pacing of the issue immensely. Dan Brown’s coloring deserves some praise as well. Despite the otherworldly nature of the enemies in this issue, Brown gives us effectively eerie colors by using a truly inspired palette that doesn’t rely on unnatural computer generated lighting effects.

I suppose the big reveal could be a red herring but Fawkes and Fernandez do this chapter justice. Given all that we’ve seen in Batman Eternal and the Bat-books in general, I have a hard time believing that the overall creative team is really going to be able to stick the landing with the ending of this event. Fawkes and Fernandez fulfill their duties here and give us a few of the better character moments that we’ve seen in recent weeks. With such a scattershot approach to this title, sometimes that’s the best you can ask for.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Amazing Spider-Man #14
Written by Dan Slott
Art by Giuseppe Camuncoli, Olivier Coipel, Wade Von Grawbadger, Cam Smith, Livesay and Justin Ponsor
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

While Peter Parker may have the power of a dozen Spider-Men behind him - not to mention the dream tag-team of Olivier Coipel and Giuseppe Camuncoli - it's unfortunate that the conclusion of the "Spider-Verse" epic still falls flat. While Dan Slott has dazzled by showing off his encyclopedic knowledge of Spider-Man lore, underneath the fan service moments is a story that suffers structurally. Perhaps its event fatigue stemming from a 30-part story, but ultimately, this universe-shaking threat folds too conveniently, making this arc feel less than the sum of its parts.

That said, it is easier to forgive this book when you recognize that it's not for lack of ambition. Olivier Coipel and Giuseppe Camuncoli are A-listers, and their art styles feel angular enough that it's not too jarring when they pass the baton. Coipel kicks off with a more widescreen approach to his pages, stretching out the more arcane sections of the storyline as the Inheritors begin to fulfill their bloody prophecies. (Also, his take on Spider-Woman and Spider-Gwen's acrobatics as they fight a horde of Goblins is a great opening image.) But for my money, Camuncoli actually might outpace him here, with his use of shadows translating into some incredibly lush inks. Even though he has a ton of characters to juggle, Camuncoli rarely feels cramped, with one great beat of Spider-Punk and Spider-UK leading the charge back to the inheritors. Colorist Justin Ponsor makes great use of violet energy effects to show the otherworldly nature of this threat, and in general ties together Camuncoli and Coipel quite well.

But ultimately, something still feels missing from "Spider-Verse," and it's all in the narrative. Part of it is something that's been endemic to this arc from the get-go - namely, that even Dan Slott can't juggle this massive a cast of characters. While he tries valiantly to give everyone their spotlight - Spider-Ham has a great beat as we get to see Peter Porker unmasked, Leopardon from the Japanese Spider-Man show makes its triumphant return, and Slott gives some nice moments to Spider-Gwen, Spider-Girl and Silk, who shares a sweet moment with Peter on the last panel - but it's at the cost of plenty of other characters. Miles Morales and the rest of the "Web Warriors" show up in a total of two panels, Spider-Man 2099 is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo, and perhaps more importantly... this never feels like Peter Parker's story. Gone is the rivalry with Otto Octavius, the Superior Spider-Man - instead, Peter seems to fight Morlun almost by accident. In a multiverse full of Spider-Men, he hasn't earned his leadership or his spotlight.

And that imbalance winds up making the rest of the story feel a little too lightweight, given all the investment readers have made following it. Part of this is the fact that when it comes to "Spider-Verse," you actually did need to be picking up most of the tie-ins in order for bits of the plot to make sense - there's an out-of-nowhere betrayal on the side of the Inheritors that only makes sense if you've been reading Spider-Verse Team-Up #3, and it's jarring to discover Spider-Man 2099 and the steampunk Lady Spider's team-up if you haven't been following Spider-Man 2099. But ultimately, the biggest sin of "Spider-Verse" is that the conclusion feels far too convenient. The Inheritors - these ravenous, unstoppable juggernauts - basically roll over off-panel, and the fact that Morlun is taken out with an easy teleportation gag feels like a weak ending to this fight to the finish. Peter doesn't learn anything, doesn't use his scientific acumen or never-say-die stubbornness. And that feels like the biggest missed opportunity of this series.

Dan Slott knows Spider-Man. And more importantly, he knows Peter Parker, and what makes him special. He showed this off during his other big events, such as "Spider-Island," where Peter showed he was the best in a city full of Spider-Men, or during "Dying Wish," where Peter literally staved off death itself due to sheer grit and goodness. These moments were special because they were derived from Peter Parker's innate character, his unfailing heroism. But for a series as focused on the metacommentary of Spider-Man himself, "Spider-Verse" seems to be surprisingly devoid of any definitive character moments for its central protagonist. Instead, this series has been distracted with all the minute variations of this character, that its creators forgot to establish what makes Peter Parker so incredible, so unique, that he can stand tall even among a dozen versions of himself.

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