Best Shots Reviews: GOTHAM ACADEMY #5, INHUMAN #12, BATMAN #39, THOR ANNUAL #1, More

DC Comics February 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has you covered with our latest round of reviews! So let's kick off today's column with Boisterous Brendan McGuirk, as he takes a look at the latest issue of Gotham Academy...

Credit: DC Comics

Gotham Academy #5
Written by Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher
Art by Karl Kerschl with Msassyk and Serge LaPointe
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Brendan McGuirk
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

You could read Batman comics for a long time without ever realizing that there must be teenage girls that live in Gotham City. Cowardly and superstitious criminals? Steady supply. Brooding vigilantes? More than seem statistically probable. Daring, adventurous young students with a penchant for experiencing adolescence and solving mysteries? Those, it turns out, can be found at Gotham Academy.

Olive Silverlock’s mother may be a supervillain, but that’s just one of the existential crises she faces. After all, she still has to juggle the perils of teachers’ judgments, rivals’ glares, hangers-on’s expectations, and boys. There are boys to worry about, too.

Gotham Academy isn’t traditional DC Comics fare. But not being a superhero book does not make it any less “mainstream,” after all, the page-popping artwork by Karl Kerschl, with colors by Msassyk and Serge LaPointe, has the slick, populist appeal of the latest variety of Hollywood animation. In fact, what leaps out to me when I look at this book is what a void there is for animated feature films aimed at teenage audiences, instead of broad “family” films. If the insular, meticulously-wrought work of Wes Anderson is garnering Academy Awards, why is there no room for animated stories about characters between the age of 15 and 22? Maybe this should be the next injustice the Dark Knight seeks to topple.

The character designs of Gotham Academy’s student body are richly diverse, not merely in ethnicity but in type, style and personality. As a result, the book doesn’t just look different, it feels different. Writers Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher seem to wear the influence of Japanese shojo comics on their boarding-school-uniform sleeves. There is tension birthed from danger, but also from longing relationship angst. That angst is no more important than the relief-bringing comedy, though, which again illustrates how much fodder there is for mainstream comics publishers to tell stories beyond the action-adventure genre.

Gotham Academy #5 sees a lot of the series’ mysteries coming to a head. Olive, Maps and the gang are ready to storm Gotham Academy headmaster Hammerhead’s vault to acquire the unique item they need to progress to the next level of their quest. As the young pupils dial up their escapade, we see them all do what teenagers often struggle with most: be themselves. They have strengths, and they have secrets. And the most precious of the secrets tie back into the Bat-mythology that put Gotham on the map.

Gotham Academy earns honors. Kerschl, Cloonan and Fletcher’s storytelling is a breeze, and stands out not only from other comic books, but of commercial storytelling throughout popular media. It is a testament to the power of diversity, not only of representation, but of perspective and priority. That its flavor is so unique among its peers makes it a savory reward to enjoy. Maybe Gotham Academy’s greatest lesson is that the extraordinarily normal kids of Batman’s world have stories to tell that are as gripping as those of the Caped Crusader himself.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Inhuman #12
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Ryan Stegman, Richard Isanove and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Reviewed by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

With Inhuman #12, Charles Soule proves that it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.

The comic seems like it’s going to be very action heavy in the onset, but once the threat has been dealt with, Charles Soule slips back into narrative mode and works on wrapping up his loose ends. This leads to a few lapses in pacing, particularly when Black Bolt and Medusa confront each other about Bolt’s disappearance. Soule still has to close out the Iso/Reader thread and build the relationship with Naja, but these parts of the comic are the least exciting given the more heavy focus on the king and queen.

As Soule transitions his story, he succeeds in giving Inhuman #12 a solid finish, but the characters take a back seat to the Medusa/Black Bolt conflict. When Black Bolt appears in the issue, he steals the show. I’ll get to this in the next paragraph, but my point is that the other characters are dropped in favor of someone who is a lot more interesting. While Iso was the main focus as the person whom Capo targeted for a new host, she’s pushed aside as Black Bolt returns and the comic rushes to close out her story so it can - more or less - focus on the “interesting” characters.

Granted, there is something majestic about Black Bolt, something that makes his presence so powerful when he enters the comic. Really, it’s difficult for any characters to compete with him because he’s such a force of nature that his appearance in the comic trumps every other bit of character development that Soule attempts. All of the other characters -- Iso, Reader, Naja, even the sharp suited Frank - are nowhere near as interesting as the king of New Attilan. Black Bolt appearing and then obliterating an entire army of Ennilux workers outshines any efforts on the part of the other characters who, in comparison, put up a paltry resistance.

Furthermore, the drama between Medusa and Black Bolt is the most engaging part of the comic. While Black Bolt is imposing with his stoic and silent presence, Medusa steals the show both in her admonishment of her husband, and in the brutal beatdown she lays on him. The final page is a little cryptic in that I can’t tell if Medusa is suddenly sad at getting what she wants, but I hope this isn’t true because this would negate the power of her words in the previous pages.

And what makes Medusa so striking and Black Bolt so dramatic is Ryan Stegman’s art. Soule relies heavily on Stegman to do the communicating for the silent Black Bolt, and his emoting is top notch. Stegman is great at depicting Black Bolt as regal and restrained one one page, and then ferocious and unbound on another. Medusa, as well, comes alive with Stegman’s energetic styling. The images are fluid and kinetic, particularly when Medusa uses her hair to give her husband a solid thrashing and these are, visually, the most striking parts of the issue.

Inhuman #12 proves that the leaders of New Attilan are not to be messed with. Black Bolt and Medusa easily steal the show, but why wouldn’t they? They’re two of Marvel’s most unique characters. Charles Soule shows that they’re like forces of nature, and Ryan Stegman communicates this though his visuals. While the comic has a few lapses in pacing, the overall result is a strong finale that leaves matters uncertain enough to lure readers back for more. What Infinity gave us was a world of possibility, and now that the Terrigen Mists has been unleashed on the earth, Soule and company have shown that they no problems coming up with new threats for these heroes to face.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #39
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and Fco Plascencia
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

The curtain has started to fall on the Joker’s final act. With Batman pushed far into a corner, everything in Gotham City looking bleak and dilapidated, it’s hard to imagine how things could get much worse since last issue. Writer Scott Snyder proves that the Joker isn’t done, nor can we believe that any of our characters are safe. When everything is put on the line, Snyder shows us exactly what both Batman and Joker are truly capable of. It’s easy to tell with everything that’s happened that the results of his story will definitely be felt in the years to come.

Despite Snyder’s previous successes, Batman #39 has a fundamental flaw: a significant lack of momentum. Whereas each scene should propel us forward into the plot and make us want to turn the page to find out what happens next, Synder’s storytelling is temporally fragmented, jumping back and forth between points in time, skipping over key bits of information and waiting to reveal the specifics of how things transpired. The scenes in Batman #39 do everything but that. Don’t get me wrong - Snyder’s expansion on his version of the Batman mythos is absolutely fascinating and his solutions to the problems Joker posits towards Batman are sound and organic.

It’s just hard to feel invested when we’re bouncing forwards in time, missing crucial plot information, and then jumping forward more for a page, then jumping back to explain how they got there. You can’t do things like attack Alfred in the Batcave and then jump forward in time to Julia saying he’s fine and made it to safety. Something like that, with a character most people are so invested in, is a disservice to the story when you think the worst has happened only to discover there’s really no consequences to the event.

That’s not to say that linear storytelling is the best and only way to tell a story, but it certainly detracts from the momentum of Snyder’s narrative when he makes all those jumps. The bottom line is, instead of anticipating and being excited for what happens next, we’re more wrapped up in what happened in the past that we’ve missed. Dramatic irony when the reader knows something the characters don’t builds tension and momentum; when the characters know things the readers don’t, most of the time it’s frustrating.

Regardless, there’s no finer art team that could more beautifully render the end of Gotham City. As usual, Greg Capullo does an amazing job, going beyond traditional panels and layouts, and takes complete advantage of the craziness to make illustrations that are expansive and dynamic. Those pages in the Batcave and that two-page spread of the parade are some of his best work yet.

It would be impossible to complement Capullo on all these things if not for the hard work of Danny Miki and Fco Plascencia. Capullo’s art wouldn’t work without Miki’s incredible inking skills—the way he shades the backgrounds and the shadows, while making fine lines to capture all the intricacy of Capullo’s pencil work is nothing short of amazing, especially when there are so many elements to Capullo’s work.

Capullo doesn’t make it easy, especially with the Joker’s face after the Batcave’s defense systems rip apart half of his face. But it’s Plascencia’s work that ties it all together. There’s something unequivocally beautiful about his colors, something about it that makes even images like Alfred on the ground in pain look like amazing works of art. It’s these three that really make the book sing, despite its misses on the story.

Despite the lackluster story elements, the overall plot remains strong. The idea of the Joker calling all of the unsaid rules off and giving his all to destroy Batman has been an incredibly fun event to watch. It just hasn’t been the most engaging. If nothing else, we can thank the story for giving Capullo, Miki, and Plascencia the opportunity to go all out in what they’re talented at and give us some of the best Batman visuals seen in quite some time. Batman #39 may not have been the best issue of this current arc, but it certainly makes us feel there’s hope yet.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Thor Annual #1
Written by Jason Aaron, Noelle Stevenson and CM Punk
Art by Timothy Truman, Frank Martin, Maguerite Sauvage and Rob Guillory
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The thing about doing anthology-style books is that if one story is bad, it has the potential to sour the whole batch. It's like a mystery bag of ingredients and you're entering the Chopped kitchen; things don't always mesh, but you manage to get a few good bites in. That's what we have in Marvel's new Thor Annual.

An interesting trio of stories brought to you by a hodge-podge of creators, some more experienced, some up and comers, and former professional wrestler CM Punk, all take their best shots at telling Thor's past, present, and future. Each story carries the issue through a different emotion and take on the Thor character. There's heavy emotional moments sprinkled with humor, but I think the biggest problem here is how the book actually starts.

When you take Jason Aaron and his run with Thor and every incarnation of the character he's worked on, you know the man is a creative and gifted storyteller. The first story here begins with a tale of King Thor's birthday and the gift his granddaughters bestow upon him. It's a fun fantasy story with almost Christian allegories of Thor tending to his garden, the once lively planet Earth. The biggest problem here is artist Timothy Truman and his lack of able to produce expressions from any of his characters here. The designs of the new inhabitants of Earth at the end were fun, but his expressionless faces of everyone in the book was a turn-off and dampened what could have been more emotional and heartfelt, but fell flat by the end.

The second story picks things up with the new Thor ("Tell me, Lady Thor..." "Just Thor.") with Lumberjanes' Noelle Stevenson and indie fan favorite Maguerite Sauvage having the Goddess of Thunder "prove" herself to the Warriors Three. Again, with more analogies that I feel this story is supposed to be as Thor has to silence her critics. Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg take Thor on a series of adventures telling her "the old Thor could do this, so you'll have to as well," and whatnot. Each mission, for a lack of a better word, was a breeze to the new Thor, as she had a different approach and did them with ease. Sauvage's wispy and distinctive style with her light color palette made this a visual treat.

Lastly, we have the story that made several headlines as former WWE wrestler and soon-to-be UFC fighter Phil "CM Punk" Brooks makes his comic writing debut here. I guess Marvel will let anybody write for them if they're famous enough because while this story was cute, if not straight juvenile, it lowers the bar of the rest of the issue. There's no meshing here and it feels all over the place. True, you can argue that's what anthologies are for, getting different points across with no singular direction, but it just didn't do anything for me. Chew's Rob Guillory is on artistic duties, giving this part of the Marvel Universe a light-hearted and comical look, but the story itself felt repetitive. While the idea of Thor thinking that outdrinking everybody in creation is a worthy note in his father's eye, there's nothing memorable about the experience.

The new Thor Annual comes at a $5 stamp on the cover so I feel like it's only really intended for heavy duty Thor fans, as it's far from a must buy. It does give you non-canonical takes on the character and his/her legacy, but without any extra pages, that $5 seems even hefty and better off spent towards something you're really passionate about.

Credit: DC Comics

Aquaman #39
Written by Jeff Parker
Art by Paul Pelletier, Sandra Hope, Wayne Faucher and Peter Pantazis
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by DC Comics
Reviewed by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Jeff Parker has a lot he wants to accomplish with Aquaman #39. He’s building “Maelstrom” to an action heavy climax while still trying to keep some heart in the story, especially with Arthur being reunited with his mother, a woman whom he thought was long since dead. Plus, he only has one more issue to solve his conflicts before “Convergence” occurs. So the result is a comic that is a bit clunky and inconsistent, but by the end, the issue brings a long lost relative, an army of Atlantis, and a volcano god together for a pretty solid climax.

Even though the comic opens with Arthur meeting his mother, Atlanna, the reunion is short lived. Of course, the former queen doesn’t believe the man standing in front of her is her son and what follows is a short battle where Arthur gets a whoopin’ from his mother. Granted, this is an understandable defeat as Jeff Parker points out that Arthur has no desire to fight the woman who gave birth to him. But what follows is a comic where Arthur runs away more than he tries to prove or defend himself, and this is a bit frustrating, considering how easily the conflict could be solved with a simple conversation.

Parker tries to explain this away by having Atlanna’s advisor, Lenu, tell Arthur that she feels Atlanna knows the truth, but that it doesn’t matter. Why? We’re not really told. Lenu hints that Atlanna would rather be ruler of Pacifica, but the justification doesn’t go much beyond this. It’s eschewed in favor of action that surges the comic towards a climax that brings several conflicts together for the cliffhanger.

The art is also a bit inconsistent. This may be due to having two inkers on the book, because In some parts, the detail is impressive and eye-catching. Paul Pelletier draws an imposing volcano god, Kraku, that looks terrifying, enormous, and intricate as it surges from the fires inside a mountain. Think of the Balrog from Lord of the Rings and you’ll get the idea. But this same creature, later in the issue, is nowhere near as sharp and instead has a dull finish. This occurs a few times in the comic. The splash pages are cinematic while the other pages look, at times, a little flat -- particularly when Tula and Neol emerge from the sea to help protect their king.

But Jeff Parker knows how to build an effective plot, and he ends the comic at the perfect moment. There’s a lot that still needs to occur to give Aquaman a neat finale (if that’s Parker’s intended goal), but beyond the story, there’s the emotional connection that has yet to be tapped and I don’t think one issue is going to give the characters the necessary and poignant conclusion they need. That being said, Parker shows that he knows how to construct a solid story, despite a few missteps, so hopefully issue #40 will achieve a satisfactory conclusion given all the set up that occurs here.

Advance Review!

Credit: Archie Comics / Dark Circle

The Black Hood #2
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

That didn't take long.

The first issue of The Black Hood felt like a dark twist on the typical superheroic origin story - ordinary man is physically changed by extraordinary circumstances, and adopts a new identity to take on crime. Of course, in the hands of Duane Swiercynzski, Officer Greg Hettinger doesn't get the proportional strength of a spider - instead, he got half his face blown off, and a growing addiction to painkillers had led him to basically blot out his own identity as the new Black Hood.

And this issue, things just keep getting worse.

It's refreshing for Swierczynski to not just have Hettinger immediately clean up his act, and get redeemed by the cleansing light of superheroics. Not even close. As Hettinger himself says, "I was high as f--king s--t." Like the first issue, the appeal of The Black Hood is watching this one-time absolutist quickly start to lose his way. This guy is no hero, and secret identities aside, this is no cape comic - this is crime all the way, and more often than not, our protagonist is just as bad as the street toughs he's brutalizing. This is no fight for the greater good - this is a dude who uses his knowledge of the system to rob drug dealers and use their ill-gotten gains to numb his own pain and self-loathing. It's a great inversion of so many superhero tropes.

But what's also great about The Black Hood is that it seems much more genre-savvy than most other stories out there. Hettinger may beat the hell out of some random guys while wearing a ratty old mask, but he's also a pill-popping hard luck case. Anonymity will only take you so far, and it's to Swierczynski's credit that he ramps up the stakes quickly by giving the Black Hood some enemies that are much, much smarter than he is, and will stop at nothing to bring him down.

As Hettinger continues his slide into darkness, Michael Gaydos' artwork continues to impress. In particular, when Hettinger wears the black hood, Gaydos makes his character look dirty and tattered - a perfect representation of his internal mindset taken to the physical extreme. While occasionally his character composition sometimes feels a little off, for the most part, Gaydos brings a dark, cinematic tone to this book, one that focuses on tone rather than traditional superhero posing. In other words, it's more like a gritty crime drama than a cape comic. Meanwhile, colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick, keeps the energy up with her palette, balancing the darkness of the settings by giving the lead character just a little bit of color - say, some light reflecting from his shirt, or a bright background to pop against his dark police gear - to make the important bits stand out.

In a lot of ways, the structure of comics is a hard thing to master - either the story is heavily decompressed, leading to a meandering narrative, or the writers build up to a dull splash page to act as a cliffhanger, forgetting to properly set up the story along the way. Swierczynski does something altogether different - this second issue has a big twist to set itself up from the first issue, but even more importantly, it builds up on the seedy tone and theme from the first installment and adds to it. The world of The Black Hood keeps getting bigger, and when you're as messed up as this character, that means there's only more opportunities to fall.

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