Best Shots Reviews: MULTIVERSITY: ULTRA COMICS, DARTH VADER #3, BATMAN & ROBIN #40, More

DC Comics March 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, Mark Irwin, Keith Champagne, Jaime Mendoza, Gabe Eltaeb and David Baron
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

"Sure, I'm just a pen and ink representation, but I'm real enough for you to hear my voice right inside your head, right? We can both agree you're intereacting with a real, physical object. And we both know you're starting to realize this isn't just any comic book."

With the debut of Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1, Grant Morrison finally reveals the four-color artifact that's been bouncing from world to world, the haunted comic book that's looking to drain its latest victim: you. If comics are windows into another world, who's to say that one day, that other world might be looking right back? Taking an ambitious, philosophical leap that extends beyond the boundaries of what he's done with Animal Man and Superman Beyond, Morrison and Doug Mahnke provide a muscular and thought-provoking metatext that makes you - yes, you - the newest hero of the DC Multiverse.

Longtime Grant Morrison readers know that the writer has never been afraid to break the fourth wall, including his classic Animal Man story "A New Science of Life" - "I can see you!" But unlike the horrified Buddy Baker learning his fictious origins, Ultra Comics is confident in itself; comics as a whole might be staged sadism for the characters involved, but Ultra Comics is ready to take the fight back to us. Opening an ominous, terrifying message from Ultra Comics himself - yep, that's the name of the superhero as well as the book he resides in - we're suddenly snapped back to a creepy lab that's literally reinventing superheroism from the inside-out: instead of humans imposing their conventions onto comics, the comics are beginning to assert some control over us. After all, we hear their voices in our heads - just like you're reading my voice now - and chances are, if you've gotten this far, you're powerless to do anything other than turn the page.

Now attention readers - activate spoiler shields. This is your last chance to put down the review and go on unscathed.

Following his more straightforward superhero stories with JLA and New X-Men, Morrison became a bit of a superhero historian with works like Batman and Seven Soldiers, digging deep to come up with new angles on old mythology. But in the case of Ultra - input with "Golden Age to Modern Inclusive" behavioral codes that cause him to fluctuate with the times - it feels like Morrison is coming to a new conclusion about his encyclopedic knowledge. With bloodsucking tick versions of the Justice League (repeating nonsense staples of comicdom like "Not on my watch" or "This ends now") and his vampire blob known as the Gentry - not to mention utilizing message board comments as a weapon - the message is clear. Comics are vampires, in a way, sucking away your energy and your time in the form of increasingly bloated stories. "Only pretend!" The Gentry shouts. "Go on--read on! What harm can come to you?"

Meanwhile, in terms of the artwork, Doug Mahnke proves to be the perfect counterpoint to Morrison's writing, in the fact that his work seems to evoke that platonic ideal of superheroism. Ultra is a chiseled Adonis from the moment he steps out of his Technicolor ooze in the lab, and Mahnke plays up a lot of the stock superheroic poses as he powers up. But where Mahkne also succeeds is in playing up some of the creepier aspects of this comic, particularly when Ultra picks up some friends who seem to be more than they appear. But where the comic does stumble - as it has a few times with Mahnke lately - is in the fine details, thanks to the fact that he has four inkers and two colorists finishing his pages. Particularly near the end of the book, the visuals take a noticeable shift with thinner inks, and when the conceit of your book is that it's a living, breathing entity, that kind of inconsistency can take readers out of the book.

Ultimately, the conclusion of Ultra Comics is the most interesting part of the book, partially for its ambiguity and partially because of the thoughts it provokes after. Are comics a self-contained, self-sustaining system, a process which breaks down and digests evil systems? Or is the very idea of the Gentry something that cannot be contained simply in the pages of a book, but almost a memetic virus that's passed along simply by thinking - or writing - about it?

Am I just a carrier? Or am I the latest DC Comics superhero?

You'll have to read Ultra Comics to find out.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Darth Vader #3
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Salvador Larroca and Edgar Delgado
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It's hard to improve upon perfection.

Regardless of what you think about the prequels, it's hard to deny one thing about Star Wars as a franchise - Darth Vader is the perfect villain. He's mysterious, he's brooding, he's absolutely deadly, and he provides a perfect foil for the heroes he battles against. But without those foils, Darth Vader becomes overpowered and underutilized - there's no room for him to grow, no places he can be taken to truly challenge him (or surprise readers). And that's ultimately the biggest challenge that Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca have to face with Darth Vader.

But giving him some super-fun supporting characters can't hurt.

After two issues that seemed to struggle to find their footing, Darth Vader #3 proves to be a surprisingly fun - and even funny - installment, as Gillen and Larocca not only put a mean spin on some familiar Star Wars staples, but also take some fun riffs on some other George Lucas favorites.

Let's just put this out on the table right now: Aphra is easily the most fun addition to the Star Wars mythology since Marvel has taken over the series. Easily. She's half Vader fangirl, half Indiana Jones, and while admittedly there still is some dissonance in tone between her and the taciturn Vader, she's impossible not to like. I was extremely surprised to see how many Indiana Jones references Gillen was able to shove into this issue - from the giant droid "boulder" rolling at her to Aphra's hilarious twist on the classic "It belongs in a museum!" While it front-loads the pacing of this book a little heavy for my tastes, given George Lucas's involvement in both universes, I still love the nod.

What's more, Gillen's sense of humor has resulted in two other hilarious additions to the cast - namely, Triple Zero and BT-1, who are basically homicidal versions of R2-D2 and C-3PO. These are additions that play well to Gillen's repetoire - he's played around with killer robots before in S.W.O.R.D. and Uncanny X-Men to great success - but the one downside is that these zany, fun new characters steal the show a bit from Vader himself. We already know his story - we've been told it ad nauseum, and it's obvious that Gillen has a limited amount of leeway to incorporate the movies and Jason Aaron's ongoing storyline in the flagship Star Wars comic - but after awhile, the collecting of allies isn't enough. We want to see more Sith destruction!

But that said, in terms of the artwork, it's kind of refreshing to see Salvador Larocca returning to more human characters. With colorist Edgar Delgado smoothing out some of his features and giving his characters some real weight, Larroca's take on Aphra looks equal parts beautiful and rough around the edges, as this rogue archaeologist crawls, hacks, runs and slides through a quarantined cell. Like I said before, the pacing hampers this a bit, meaning that some of the later fight sequences feel a little cramped, but as a whole, this is a marked improvement in the artwork. Colorist Edgar Delgado also sells the difference between Triple Zero and C-3PO just by the darker palette - it's a great touch.

Ultimately, I'm not sure Darth Vader #3 is the silver bullet to the challenges behind writing for this villain - but I'd be absolutely lying if I didn't say this was a fun, rollicking read. The new characters in this comic may wind up stealing the show from the Dark Lord of the Sith - but I'd be more upset by it if they weren't so damn engaging. While perhaps this isn't a textbook victory for Darth Vader personally, it does happen to be far and away the most entertaining issue of the run so far.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman and Robin #40
Written by Peter J. Tomasi
Art by Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray, and John Kalisz
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Who would ever have imagined that there was even a possibility that we could see Batman and Robin – Bruce and Damian for that matter – get a happy ending? If there’s one thing to take away from writer Peter J. Tomasi’s run on Batman and Robin it’s that while comics can deal with heavy and serious topics, they can still be engaging without being emotionally draining and can even be happy every once in a while. And still have incredibly quality! With everything Bruce and Damian have gone through in this run, it’s irrefutable that they deserve the ending they got and Tomasi earned ending it the way he did.

The main criticism for this issue – and this arc in general – is how Damian’s new powers were handled. It doesn’t appear that there will be lasting effects of impacts from when he gained his powers and it brings into question why he was given them at all. Not all change should be permanent, but by the end of the issue, it’ll leave you wondering why it was important he even got them in the first place and if something else could have driven the conflict in this final arc. Regardless of the lasting impacts from this development, the actual conflict was handled well – the Justice League and Batman responded as one would expect them to respond to the situation.

The first three-quarters of the issue is devoted to fighting a giant robot in Nagasaki. There’s a twist to this part of the story that cheapens the fun you’ll have seeing Damian fight side-by-side with Superman, Wonder Woman, and Shazam. Seeing the four of them – all heavy hitters – just beating the crap out of this robot is immensely satisfying, especially when Damian takes control of the situation. It’ll seem weird for Superman and Wonder Woman to step back and let Damian lead, but it’ll all become clear later when the twist is revealed.

Damian started as a cold blooded and efficient assassin and over the course of the run, he’s developed to be much more like you’d expect a pre-teen to act. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s nice to see him be a little naïve and to stuff his face until he passes out. It shows the effect Bruce and the entire Bat-family has had on this kid and makes the entire run feel like it meant something, especially considering all of Damian’s history even before the New 52.While there are some moments with the dialogue that feel overdone and eye-roll worthy – looking at the “oofs” the characters say in between dialogue when they get hit – and a little distracting, overall it’s fine and doesn’t detract that much from the issue.

As always, Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray, and John Kalisz do a phenomenal work on the art. Especially when doing large and grandiose fight scenes, the art is incredibly important to tie everything together. They’re able to realize this last hurrah for Batman and Robin and make it a joy to read from beginning to end. It’s worth noting the shift in colors and inks from the first arcs to the final issue – whereas the team include more shadows and heavier inks in the beginning of the run to reflect its languid and morose tone, this issue doesn’t have much of that at all. Despite most of the narrative happening during the night, everything is illuminated by the fight and technology.

It’s hard to put into words just how great and emotional the last page of this issue and run is; it’s hard to put into words just how much it means to see Bruce and Damian smiling together after everything they’ve gone through since Damian was reintroduced in 2006’s Batman and Son. Tomasi has been a saving grace for this character, as has this entire team. From start to finish, Batman and Robin has been one of the most enjoyable series put out by DC. Batman and Robin #40 synthesizes all the best elements of what superhero comics can be: awesome action, meaningful character development, conflict and tension that doesn’t rely on death or serious injury, and ultimately a fun read that will end up leaving you smiling just as much as Bruce and Damian.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Daredevil #14
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Chris Samnee and Matt Wilson
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The only thing that hampers Daredevil #14 is that this status quo change didn't come sooner.

For 14 issues now, Matt Murdock has made San Francisco his new home, but it wasn't until now - with Secret Wars looming, ready to potentially reinvent the Marvel U as a whole - that Mark Waid and Chris Samnee took a really sweeping change to the character.

Matt Murdock is Daredevil - but the time for alter egos has passed. In Daredevil #14, the line between lawyer and vigilante has been nearly obliterated, and it makes for some fascinating reading. While there are a few twists and turns that feel like they've already been done in other series, on the whole, this may be the most refreshing Daredevil has been in a long time.

Three pages in, you realize that Waid and Samnee are looking to put a brand-new spin on what solicitations have called their "final chapter" of the Man Without Fear. Taking a page from the Moon Knight playbook, Matt has finally - and fully - leaned into his blown secret identity as Daredevil, meaning no more hiding and no more masks. Gone is the classic spandex suit, and in its place is a dapper red-and-black three-piece that has fully eliminated - or as Matt might say, streamlined - the distinction between Matt's various identities. It's an interesting take, as Matt actually is now getting clients and hitching rides to crime scenes thanks to the power of celebrity - I just wish it was a direction that Waid and Samnee could have taken months ago. That said, with a big Marvel event looming overhead, it's hard to blame them too much for effectively shoehorning a big status quo change in the book's last hurrah.

Additionally, the inclusion of a new character - the daughter of the Owl - plays into some longer-term storytelling that Waid has been setting up. Ever since Matt moved to San Francisco, there's been an undercurrent that he doesn't quite know the history of this new playing field as effortlessly as he did New York - and that's made him make some rookie mistakes. But having a younger Owlette provides a nice foil for Matt - it's unclear if she's a hero or a villain, but that increases the tension because you never know which way she's going to go. Add that in with another appearance from the Shroud - a character who you know is more than meets the eye - and you've got yourself some potent, economic storytelling.

Artist Chris Samnee, meanwhile, continues to dominate as one of Marvel's most impressive artists. While admittedly his redesign on Daredevil looks a lot like Declan Shalvey's Moon Knight - I mean a lot, a lot - you can't deny that it's an effective redesign, one that'll definitely look good for the short-term thanks to Matt Wilson's bold colors. His design on the Owl's daughter also looks particularly harrowing, with her lithe figure belying a mean set of claws. Samnee's layouts are probably his strongest skill set, particularly the dynamic way he portrays Matt leaping off a rooftop to save a man from falling.

There are a lot of new angles to the new Man Without Fear - so many that I feel it's more jarring than a simple change of address. And that's a bittersweet thing. There is a ton of room for Mark Waid to manuver with Daredevil's new status quo, but only a limited amount of issues left for him to do it. Will this open approach to superheroism continue post-Secret Wars? If so, I can only hope it's done with the same level and care that Waid and Samnee have done this issue.

Credit: DC Comics

Gotham Academy #6
Written by Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher
Art by Karl Kerschl, Mingue Helen Chen, Msassyk and Serge LaPointe
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Reviewed by Kelly Richards
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Still trying to find the perfect balance of school work and sneaking around, Olive and her friends move ever closer to unravelling the mysteries that surround her as the first arc of Gotham Academy reaches its climax. Continuing to charm readers with its beautiful art work, witty script, and mix of suspense and teen angst, Gotham Academy is solidifying its place within the extended Bat-universe.

Opening with a face-off between Batman, Killer Croc, and a bag of fireworks, #6 is potentially the most action packed installment of Gotham Academy yet. The mysteries that have been laid out previously are resolved, while a hundred new one take their place. Also, it’s pizza day in the cafeteria.

Cloonan and Fletcher continue to hit all the right notes as #6 moves from action to flashbacks to school book reports. Their use of humor to take the edge off of the tension neither detracts from the story nor disrupts the pacing but rather gives the reader a chance to breathe and the characters a chance to show their humanity. Their characterization remains flawless and Maps, in particular, continues to be a complete delight, exhibiting puzzle solving skills that would put Dick Grayson to shame. Consistently fun and engaging, not only do Cloonan and Fletcher know how to keep you turning pages, they know how, and when, to end an issue to make sure you are desperate for more.

Sharing art duties this issue are Gotham Academy regulars, Kerschl, Msassyk, and LaPointe, and newcomer, Mingue Helen Chen, and boy, does it make for something beautiful. Kerschl tackles the main story, spoiling the reader with his gorgeous line work and a panel design that creates a sense of urgency before it loosens its grip as the chaos subsides. Colored by Msassyk and LaPointe, Kerschl’s inks are brought to life with a palette that transforms from cold blues and greens, to the warmer tones the fill the interiors of Gotham Academy.

Chen takes care of the flashbacks and subplots that are now beginning to unfold within the story. Complementing Kerschl’s work with her painterly style and color work, Chen injects a softness to the flashbacks that gives them a definite air of sympathy, and in her beautiful closing pages, introduces the readers to Gotham Academy’s newest student. While it could be argued that Chen’s work is not as polished as Kerschl’s or that it lacks his energy, it has an ethereal quality that creates a sense of atmosphere that is perfect for the tone of the book.

Gotham Academy has everything. Romance, mystery, suspense, high school drama, a cast that gets better with every issue, and most importantly, a great creative team. A team who are not only pushing for diversity and inclusivity within comics, but who are delivering it with every issue.

Credit: DC Comics

Sensation Comics #29
Written by Sara Ryan
Art by Christian Duce and Wendy Broome
Lettering by Saida Temofonte
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Sensation Comics is the most important book DC currently publishes and is one of the most important books being published in the industry period. The line is headed by editor Kristy Quinn and each and every single issue of Sensation Comics has done two things consistently: telling amazing, positive stories featuring Wonder Woman and telling stories that actually tackle subjects that need to be talked about.

In Sensation Comics #29, Wonder Woman is asked to help protect teenage singer Esperanza while on her Hope Tour after the singer receives threats to her safety. Sure, this might seem a little below Wonder Woman’s paygrade – after all, it’s easy to assume there’s most likely major crises happening around the world simultaneously. Writer Sara Ryan capitalizes on Wonder Woman’s compassion to make it believable she would do this favor to an old friend; this old friend met Wonder Woman while Diana taught a self-defense class at a women’s shelter. One of the major themes seen across the Sensation Comics titles is women empowering other women and this issue is no exception. Even though this interaction lasts for about two pages, it immediately makes us care about the relationship between these two and completely understand why Wonder Woman’s taking the time to protect Esperanza.

Ryan is incredibly attuned with what’s going on in the world that she’s able to show us exactly what Esperanza is in danger from with just three short scenes. Esperanza gets a package in the mail with a teddy bear and a thong in sealed bags asking her to “choose wisely” – the thong had poison ivy all over it. During an interview, when Esperanza proudly declares her next stuff to be hardcore, to which the TV anchor asks if she means porn. While posting a picture of a dinosaur while visiting a museum, Esperanza is assaulted with comments from social media users who verbally attack her based on her ethnicity and gender – how she’s “an illegal… should get raped… die in a fire… fat, and… anorexic.” It’s honestly a no brainer as to why Wonder Woman would feel motivated to help Esperanza. And kudos to Christian Duce and Wendy Broome on art, as they both work incredibly well together to make pained expressions on the characters’ faces that will absolutely make your heart wrench.

The only thing stopping this issue from being a perfect 10/10 is the structure of the plot. It’s a non-linear narrative and we jump points in time throughout the issue, and it hinders our ability to immediately become invested in the story. Our investment happens early on, but not immediately. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding who’s the one behind these threats to Esperanza and the issue would have been enhanced with some dramatic irony – it’s perfectly okay for Wonder Woman and Esperanza not to know who the real wolf amongst the sheep is, but it would go a long way to make it explicit for the readers as to who’s the threat, especially since there are a lot of hints.

What other comic book is talking about these issues? What other comic book is addressing them and trying to show how it’s not okay? This is the reason why Sensation Comics is important. This is the best comics has to offer – when comics can take something going on in the world today and inject some truth and generate conversation, it’s incredible and amazing. The entire creative team has done an amazing job that makes this digital release stand head and shoulders above its competition.

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