Best Shots Reviews: THE FOX #1 Advance, SPIDER-GWEN #2, HOWARD THE DUCK #1, BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT #1

The Fox #1 variant cover by Chris Samnee
Credit: Archie / Dark Circle

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has the latest for you, as we take on a handful of the week's best and brightest new releases! So let's kick off with the other other new webslinger, as we take a look at the second issue of Spider-Gwen...

Credit: Marvel Comics

Spider-Gwen #2
Written by Jason Latour
Art by Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Naysayers may say it's a bad sign to have a guest star show up two issues into your new book, but when it's the Spectacular Spider-Ham joining the sophomore issue of Spider-Gwen, well, let's just say this comic is still surprisingly kosher. Writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez are able to have their cake and eat it too, subtly tying Gwen Stacy back to her "Spider-Verse" origins while giving us the old-school soap operatics that made Spider-Man such a success in his heyday.

After the action-packed first issue, it makes sense that Latour and company would take things a little slower for their second installment of Spider-Gwen - especially since their lead character took a header from 300 feet. Reeling from her defeat against the Vulture, Gwen Stacy is spaced-out and unsure where to go - and that's where Latour takes some interesting twists and turns. First and foremost is the inclusion of Spider-Ham as a hallucinatory Jiminy Cricket figure, giving readers all their required exposition with a singular, humorous voice. "Puking in the Hudson River from a garbage boat... that's a powerful New York move, Gwenzelle," he cracks. Yet the inclusion of Spider-Ham, while totally out of left field, is a great way of not just showing Gwen's vulnerability, but giving her a more direct tie to the greater Spider-pantheon - not to mention a fun temporary costar.

But while there's a brief burst of action as Latour shows how Gwen survived her harrowing descent - and as "a veteran Spider-move," it's still pretty spectacular - much of this issue is about fallout. With great power doesn't just come great responsibility - the webs also come with a hefty cost to your social life, and this issue is all about Gwen being pulled between her supporting cast. Like Spider-Ham wisely says, "sometimes you gotta face real life," and in this case, we're treated to Gwen's confused bandmates, led by frenemy frontwoman Mary Jane, as well as Gwen's father, Captain George Stacy, wrestling with the newfound knowledge that his little girl happens to be the wanted murderer known as Spider-Woman. George's subplot takes up about a third of this book's run time, but it's easily the most intense of the bunch - Gwen may be struggling with a concussion, but George has to not just worry about his daughter's safety, but to deflect the tenacious Frank Castle, who'll stop at nothing to take Spider-Gwen out. As far as setup goes, it's surprisingly exciting, and it's largely because Latour knows his audience - he's playing off preconceptions of the mainstream Marvel Universe, and it's fun to see twists and turns like the Punisher on the right side of the law, or Daredevil serving as the Kingpin's biggest champion.

But what ultimately sells Spider-Gwen is style - and that's what Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi have in spades. I love the angularity that Rodriguez gives his characters, but it's really Renzi's colorwork that imbues Spider-Gwen's world with such an evocative sensibility - pages are drenched in purples that explode into hot pinks, and prison oranges are cut across with sinister aquamarines. (There's also a very cool trick where Matt Murdock uses his radar sense, as the colors are inverted into black and white.) There's so much energy to the colorwork, and it's really a testament to Renzi that no other book on the stands quite looks like this one. Anchored by Renzi's colors, Rodriguez really sells the fluidity and expressiveness of his characters - even behind a face mask, you can see how freaked out Gwen is as she falls to her almost-certain doom, and I downright love how wide-eyed and angry Frank Castle looks. It's a great showing from all involved.

Usually a second issue like this would mean curtains for any other book, but most other books don't have the creative team of Spider-Gwen. There's a real humanity to the story that heightens the soap opera, and the artwork is just so singular and unique that you'd be hard-pressed not to miss it. This book should be a star-making turn for Latour, Rodriguez and Renzi, and if there's any justice in this world, Spider-Gwen will enjoy a long, fruitful career as Marvel's newest friendly neighborhood webslinger.

Batman: Arkham Knight #1 cover by Dan Panosian
Batman: Arkham Knight #1 cover by Dan Panosian
Credit: DC Entertainment

Batman: Arkham Knight #1
Written by Peter Tomasi
Art by Viktor Bogdanovic, Art Thibert and John Rauch
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Outreach has long been a concern for the comic book industry, and to that end, industry experts have looked to multimedia efforts ranging from movies, TV shows and even video games to inspire life-long affections for all things superhero. Case in point: The mega-bestselling Batman: Arkham franchise, which adopted a free-roaming system of beatdowns and detective work as players became the Dark Knight. While Batman hardly needs any extra publicity as DC's most visible and popular superhero, it's hard to deny the obvious appeal Batman: Arkham Knight will have as it brings together the comic book and gaming communities.

Written by veteran Bat-scribe Peter Tomasi, it's impressive at all the buttons Batman: Arkham Knight hits, as DC tries to pull out as many tricks from their utility belt as possible. The book kicks off right after the conclusion of Arkham City, as Batman pulls the corpse of the Joker from the Monarch Theatre. In any other story, this would be a seismic change to the very fabric of Gotham City, but Tomasi is a bit more subtle here - indeed, Batman is running so ragged pursuing Arkham escapees that he hardly has the time to ruminate about the passing of his greatest foe, even if the Clown Prince of Crime has contingency plans that go on even after his death. What's great about this book is that Tomasi makes it completely streamlined and user-friendly - even while the death of the Joker seems to nag at the edges of Batman's consciousness, you don't have to know almost anything about Batman in order to get into this book. If you've played the game, you're well ahead of the curve.

What perhaps impresses me the most about this book, however, are the places that DC is tapping for inspiration. Tomasi brings in lots of great nods to the video game, whether its the rooftop "drop" of Batman's suit and arsenal, or Batman using his grappling hook to rope a thug in for a smashing right cross. But Arkham Knight isn't content just to draw from the video game - it seems like an astonishing, savvy move to have Viktor Bogdanovic on the artwork, as he and inker Art Thibert produce a look that is uncannily similar to flagship Batman artist Greg Capullo. Not only does this make Batman look expressive and angular in the dark shadows of Gotham, but it's pure corporate synergy - once readers brought in through the video games finish Arkham Knight, they're able to get more of the same style of storytelling in the flagship Batman book. It's actually kind of a genius move.

Of course, for thsoe who already read Batman, this may be a lesson in diminishing returns. For those who are familiar with Scott Snyder's bestselling book, there are a handful of similarities that are a little much, like Bruce Wayne delivering a rousing speech in front of a model city to "build a future" for Gotham. Additionally, while Bogdanovic looks plenty similar to Capullo, he is a little bit less polished, even with Art Thibert on inks - while there are some great shots, like Batman hammering Tweedle Dee in the face, there are a few other moments where some of the big splashworthy moments get a little wonky in terms of their composition and layouts.

That all said, it's heartening to see a comic that doesn't just make financial sense, but works creatively as well. Batman: Arkham Knight is one such comic. If you've played the video game, this is a great tie-in to the next installment of the franchise, and even if you haven't, this is a smooth entry that clocks in at 30 massive pages of story. Whether you're buying this in installments or waiting for the collected edition, this is one great bit of outreach featuring one of DC's most enduring characters.

Howard the Duck #1
Howard the Duck #1
Credit: Marvel Comics

Howard the Duck #1
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Joe Quinones and Rico Renzi
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Howard the Duck has worn a lot of hats during his long, semi-illustrious career. Since his creation in 1973, Howard has been a rent-a-ninja, a presidential candidate, and a living, breathing nexus of continuity for Marvel Comics. However, Chip Zdarsky, Joe Quinones, and Rico Renzi’s reboot Howard the Duck #1 puts him in perhaps the strangest hat to date; that of a fully feathered-out character. There is no denying that Howard the Duck #1 is hilarious and under the deft hands of Quinones and Renzi, it is chocked full of gorgeous visual, but the biggest surprise is just how -- dare I say it -- real Howard feels as he complains and slinks his way through Marvel’s New York. Howard the Duck has never been a character who can be described as realistic, yet Zdarsky plays him as straight and as pissed-off as he possibly can without descending into parody. Howard the Duck #1 is clever, biting, and hints at a deep well of melancholy under the sneering beak of its main character. Who could have guessed?

But make no mistake, while Chip Zdarsky mines some unexpected pathos from America’s third-favorite talking duck, this debut issue is filled to bursting with gags, both visual and in the script itself. After a quick jaunt into space during the cold open to establish the series’ main antagonist, a Gatherer, tasked with scouring the universe for strange specimens for the Collector, we fade in on Howard, currently cooling his heels in a women’s lock-up because someone in the male population is allergic to duck feathers. Zdarsky hits the ground running with his characterization of Howard, returning him to his Steve Gerber-era roots as a perpetually pissed-off cynic, constantly looking to rail against the established order and to seek out any sort of leg up he can get on the hairless apes.

While Zdarsky displays a firm handle on Howard’s tempestuous personality, he also goes a step further and gives him a pretty interesting foil in the form of Tara Tam, a fellow repeat offender with a Kate Leth-ian undercut, cool tattoos, and an up-for-anything attitude. Tara is cool, confident, and unwilling to take any crap from anyone, duck or human, and pairing her with Howard for this issue’s case brings out the best in both of them. Now Howard actually has a person in his corner (for the time being) and Howard’s fast-paced, ultra weird lifestyle seems to be exactly the thing that Tara needs to keep her out of the slammer. As a sucker for odd pairings that lead to even odder dynamics, Howard the Duck #1‘s pairing of these two weirdos is poised to pay out big further down the line.

While Zdarsky keeps the zingers zinging from the beak of Howard, it is his down-to-earth approach to Howard that keeps it feeling fresh and funny. Most of the time, before this incarnation of Howard the Duck, Howard's stories were solely used for satire or to air some sort of frustration that Gerber or Bill Mantlo had been harboring. This isn't the case with Howard the Duck #1 -- in fact, it is the direct opposite. Chip Zdarsky just thinks that the idea of an anthropomorphic duck running around getting into adventures and hanging out with cool people is interesting, so he allows the comedy to come naturally from that specific kind of lunacy. Howard, of course, is still acerbic and haughty as he interacts with his neighbors and the civilian population, but it never feels like there is any agenda behind it other than telling a funny, off-beat story. Chip Zdarsky writes Howard like a normal person with wants, needs, and a possible dark bit of pain that is telegraphed in a gorgeously haunting panel from Quinones and Renzi. It isn’t often that you hear “Howard the Duck” and “normal” in the same sentence, but this debut issue carefully walks the line between realism and lunacy while keeping the laughs coming. Howard the Duck #1 may not be as avant-garde as some of the previous Howard works, but it doesn’t have to be.

As Howard is put in his first case – recovering a stolen family heirloom from the Black Cat -- artist Joe Quinones delivers some truly striking pages filled to bursting with energy and visual jokes. Aided by the extra-bright colors of Rico Renzi, Quinones delivers a rollicking and clever take on Howard and his weird working life, complete with training montages, a few hysterical facial expressions and more than a few chuckle inducting SFX cues; my particular favorite being “KSHUT!” after one guest star slams a filing cabinet closed in frustration. Howard the Duck #1 reminded me of Joe Quinones’ too-few fill-ins issues on Matt Fraction’s run of FF in that this is a far-out premise played straight, but not straight enough to be above including a joke about Howard and Tara planning a heist using Dungeons and Dragons mini-figures. Bottom line, if you want weird, funny, and engaging artwork, Quinones and Renzi are your men. (Or hairless apes.)

Howard the Duck and Tara are on the case and while Heroes for Hire they aren’t, they will still charm the socks right off of you and will probably end up stealing them because, you know, people need socks. Howard the Duck #1 might have sounded like a flop in the making a year ago, yet under the smartass pen of Chip Zdarsky and the always fun Joe Quinones and Rico Renzi, this debut issue hits all the right notes and the right time. After the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, all sorts of weirdoes and reprobates waugh’ed for a new Howard movie. While that seems less and less likely, we have the best possible alternative in the form of Howard the Duck #1. Howard may have had his fleeting time in the limelight of the silver screen, but it’s only when he’s in the funny pages that this long-suffering mallard feels truly at home.

Advance Review!

Credit: Archie / Dark Circle

The Fox #1
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Dean Haspiel and Allen Passalaqua
Lettering by John Workman
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Archie Comics have done a great job diversifying their output recently, casting their thematic net a little further than Riverdale's squeaky brand of teenage romance. Archie's modern line-up is as much a throwback to their early days as it is a contemporary reinvention, as evidenced by The Fox, a character whose first incarnation debuted slap-bang in the middle of World War II. The Fox #1 is a bright and bold beginning to Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid's second volume for The Fox, but their brazenly old-school approach to storytelling clashes with the modern expectation of what a comic book should be.

Paul Patton, Jr. is the Fox, a struggling photojournalist who originally donned a costume to sell photos, but is now knee-deep in the battle for good against evil. His home town of Beaver Kill has been abandoned. Sentenced to be used as a watershed for a nearby drought-suffering city, Paul and his son visit the ghost-town to take the last ever photographs of Beaver Kill. Snapping away, Paul soon catches a flash of an eerie green woman in his pictures...

The Fox is an unashamedly Golden Age superhero, a hero who seems like he should be battling deformed mobsters against a backdrop of paranoia and misguided racism. He uses terms like “brown our pants” and fondly remembers bubble-gum and baseball cards as the height of youth culture. Make no mistake, this is a love letter to the ‘40s masquerading as an modern-day revamp.

Mark Waid writes an uninhibited throwback to a simpler time, complete with “narrating all the things I'm doing as I am doing them!” As a pure nostalgia-inducer, it works perfectly, but there's no denying that the art-form has moved forward for the better. Waid also makes extensive use of inner monologue to introduce us to the life and times of Paul Patton, Jr.; sometimes filling the page with so much narration that it becomes disconnected from the action. In one sequence, The Fox intricately recalls a pivotal and tender moment from his childhood while careening down an underground cave system.

Although more than a little clumsily told, there's solid stuff here. The opening page is tense and exciting, immediately introducing The Fox as he struggles for his life, and the next 21 pages are well-paced. Waid sets up Paul's family dynamics, gives us insight into his past, adds a little romance and then shrouds the whole issue with the omnipresent threat of Bright Industries and its dastardly CEO, Mister Smile. Mark Waid is the consummate veteran, and The Fox #1 is a great example of his solid grasp of breezy super-heroics.

Penciller Dean Haspiel's angular style takes some getting used to; it's all lumpen square chins beneath razor-sharp cheekbones that jut out four inches past the rest of the character's face. I'd call it bad art if Waid's script didn't make their intentions clear: “Whatever you are, don't make me hit you with my chin! It's dangerously pointy!” When the costume comes out, those odd features extend to The Fox's body as well, with pencil-thin limbs and a squat, balloon-like torso. With white eyes and a plain black mask, The Fox is wonderfully expressive, cribbing from the Spidey school of emotion; smiling, cowering and worrying with nothing but a pair of elasticated eye-holes.

A bit of blood and a mildly risqué villain inhibits the book's otherwise all-ages potential, but this isn't really for them, even if its wholesome nature makes it seem like it should be. The pre-teens of today might be a little too cynical for The Fox's self-aware homage to the Golden Age, mistaking the purposefully old-fashioned for the embarrassingly out-of-date. Waid and Haspiel have a clear vision for The Fox, but it won't be for everyone. Peculiar but eye-catching artwork sit alongside a fun script that is overwrought by design, making for a polarizing package. But if you can silence your inner cynic, The Fox #1 is a worthwhile read.

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