Best Shots Reviews: THOR #8, BATMAN: EARTH ONE VOL. 2, SECRET WARS #2, LANTERN CITY #1, DARTH VADER #5

"Lantern City #1" cover
Credit: Archaia / BOOM! Studios

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, with this week's installment of our reviews. Let's kick off today's column with Puzzling Pierce Lydon, as he takes a look at the latest issue of Thor...

Credit: Marvel Comics

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

The Thunderer’s identity is revealed at last in this issue as Thor, the Odinson and a smattering of Marvel’s most recognizable female heroes team up to take down the Destroyer. Since spiraling out of Original Sin, Jason Aaron been able to take the title in a new direction. Theories about Thor’s identity have run the gamut from recurring minor characters as well as recent stars of titles like Kieron Gillen’s Journey into Mystery. Despite some minor resistance to the change, making Thor a true legacy character has given them a new lease on life.

This issue itself plays out as more of a fight comic than anything else but it does reveal some of character dynamics that we haven’t seen before. Aaron is very lucky to have the talented Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson on his side. Thor is a character that thrives on big moments and thanks to the art team, there are plenty of them. I’m not just talking action sequences (though, there are plenty of awe-inspiring ones), the art team really nails the revelation of Thor’s identity and it’s as haunting as it is powerful. Dauterman’s linework is what stands out above all else, adding a sense of clarity and importance to what’s happening on the page.

On some level, Thor is a bit of a family drama disguised in superhero dressing. It comes as no surprise that Odin and his brood would be one of Marvel’s most dysfunctional families. Aaron has had a great handle on Thor and the Asgardians since he began telling stories in the Nine Realms and Thor #8 continues that winning streak. As the final installment in this volume of Thor, Aaron uses his page count to ramp up to Secret Wars as well as give readers a peek at what A-Force might be like (even though that book will not be Aaron’s). I don’t really love Aaron’s dialogue between the superheroines. I think he errs on the side of humor when he doesn’t have much time to build a character up over the course of an arc and it’s clear when he’s not confident with a character’s voice. Occasionally schlocky dialogue aside, this is a strong issue overall.

Secret Wars has only just begun, but I’m eager to see where Thor fits into all of this. Marvel has really been playing up the idea of legacies for all their characters and creating those for new readers is important. Giving new readers new characters to latch onto without the weight of hundreds of issues of back story and multiple characterizations over 50 years of comics makes them much more palatable. Aaron, Dauterman and company have excelled in giving Jane Foster’s Thor a solid base from which to grow. I just hope that this isn’t the last we see of this creative team on a solo adventure for her.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman: Earth One, Vol. 2
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank, Jon Sibal and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

The early days of Batman have been ripe fodder for new stories since the days of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, with lucrative takes like The Long Halloween, Zero Year and even Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight film series. With that in mind, it was no surprise to see Geoff Johns take a crack at Batman's origins with Batman: Earth One with his onetime Action Comics collaborator Gary Frank. Unfortunately, this unfocused second installment suffers from many of the problems of the first, as Johns and Frank work on a character that runs counter to their strengths.

Set after the events of Batman: Earth One, Vol. 1, the second volume of Johns and Frank's graphic novels continues to build up Batman as a burgeoning heroic force in Gotham - even if he's still figuring out his methods when the Riddler causes mayhem. Beyond telltale references of the death of Mayor Oswald Cobblepot in the first graphic novel, as well as Alfred now being reimagined as a curmudgeon, similar to his portrayal in the TV show Gotham, there's little homework you need to get into this book. In certain ways, there's a real Criminal Minds vibe that comes off here, as the Riddler lingers in the shadows for much of the story - indeed, it's almost a letdown when we actually do meet him, because he's so creepy as he paints his trademark question mark. When this book connects, it does well for itself, particularly when Bruce and the Riddler square off in a battle of wits on a sabotaged subway car.

Unfortunately, whereas Criminal Minds has a likable cast to drive the story forward, Bruce Wayne doesn't really energize this book. Unlike the hyper-competent ninja-detective that is able to stand side-by-side with Superman, Johns' Batman is surprisingly awkward, messing up crime scenes, totally screwing up high-speed chases and even getting nabbed by the police. While Johns tries his best to humanize the character with a love story, it's hard to get behind Bruce as a hero when instead of cheering his successes, you're constantly thinking, "What on Earth is this guy thinking?" Superpowered heroes have the luxury of having human foibles - it's what makes them relatable to us normal joes. But like the Christopher Nolan movies said, when you're just a man, you need to cast aside these minor weaknesses to become something more.

Additionally, Earth One's structure - without the cliffhanger chapter breaks that so many comics writers rely on - also seems to be a struggle for Johns, as he crams in not one, but three villains into this story (with a fourth one teased at the end), ultimately giving short shrift to many of the characters' development. Part of the problem is that most readers know these characters and what's going to happen to them, so there's not much new here. The story of Harvey Dent and his twin sister, for example, feels pretty predictable from the get-go, and while Johns' Killer Croc is the most sympathetic character in the book, his about-face from villain to hero comes across as abrupt and unearned. The Riddler himself might be the biggest disappointment, as while the main theme of this story is Batman's development as a detective, we never really get much in the way of insight about the Riddler's motivations or identity.

Gary Frank, an excellent artist in his own right, is also working on a character that doesn't play to his strengths. Frank is so expressive, almost cartoony with his expressions - it worked so well with his Christopher Reeve-inspired Superman, but his Batman winds up coming across as self-conscious, looking like a cosplayer rather than an imposing Dark Knight. It's a classic case of the right artist on the wrong property - just seeing how wide Batman's eyes are kind of robs the character of a lot of his mystery and his presence. Other characters, like the Riddler, also get some off-putting designs. It's the rest of Frank's characters that look great - his Detective Bullock is probably the highlight of the book, having a layer of dirt and grime that the rest of the denizens of Gotham could definitely use.

In a lot of ways, it makes sense for DC Comics to keep coming back to the origin of Batman - it was that same origin that redefined the company's fortunes, and perhaps its telling that they would come back again and again, hoping to strike gold the same way they did in 1986. Unfortunately, Batman: Earth One, Vol. 2 isn't going to have that same kind of instant magnetism. Those who are interested in reading more Batman stories after the mega-popular Christopher Nolan movies are going to wonder who this bumbler in a bat-suit is, and diehard fans aren't going to buy this low-tension storyline when they have Scott Snyder or the Arkham City games to electrify them. The sad thing is, Johns and Frank might be one of DC Comics' best teams - but it just so happens that their styles are not the right fit for DC's biggest icon.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Secret Wars #2
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Esad Ribic and Ive Svorcina
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Jonathan Hickman once wrote that “all hope lies in Doom.” Now, years later, it seems that that prophecy has finally come to pass. After destroying both the Marvel Universe and Ultimate Universe in a blaze of hellfire and interdimensional battle, Hickman introduces us to a brand new reality in the pages of Secret Wars #2; a world crafted in the image of its god-king, Victor von Doom. Hickman, along with his beastly art team Esad Ribic and Ive Svorcina, drop their audience into the thick of the intrigue and strangeness that is Battleworld with an issue that has more in common with Game of Thrones than the previous event in which this issue takes its name. The final incursion may have destroyed the Marvel universes as we know it, but what power could hope to stand against Dr. Doom and his will to rule?

Secret Wars #2, written to be more accessible and less chaotic than the debut issue, replaces that denseness with outright weirdness. It seems that after the final incursion swallowed the 616 and 1610 a new world sprang up from the ashes; a world with the face of Dr. Doom. Jonathan Hickman, a writer know for his uncanny knack for compelling worldbuilding goes for the absolute gusto here with this second installment, slowly and steadily introducing the audience into a world in which Dr. Doom has become both regent and religion, destroying or burying anything that may challenge his divinity, like a mysterious, yet familiar ship that has recently been unearthed in the wastelands of Doom’s empire.

Hickman also cleverly slots Marvel mainstays into the court of Dr. Doom in interesting ways. For example, Doom has ascended to not only King of Battleworld, but also the All-Father of the newly rechristened Doomgard and has employed an army of Thors who are carefully chosen to undertake the test of Mjolnir in order to serve as Doom’s personal police force. Hickman doesn’t stop with just an army of Thor’s at Doom’s command, however. Secret Wars #2 also chronicles the uneasy ecosystem of Battleworld’s kingdoms as a newly powered Thor accompanies his older counterpart in mediating a dispute between Baron Sinister of Bar Sinister and Baron Braddock of Higher Avalon. Upon reaching the court, which is housed in the center of the World Tree, Hickman reveals just who else is still alive and thriving in this new reality. Dr. Strange now serves as Doom’s sheriff and magical adviser while Valeria Richards acts as his scientific foundation; both serving as the scales in which Doom’s new empire balances. Most heartbreaking of all the surviving characters however is Susan Richards, who now sits behind Doom’s throne serving as his conscience and possible queen of his fractured world. Secret Wars #2 throws a ton of stuff at the audience, but unlike the debut issue, Hickman takes it all much, much slower in order to fully immerse the reader into the state of reality thus far. The unfamiliar familiarity of Secret Wars #2 more than makes up for the wall to wall explosions and breathless exposition of the first issue, and proves to be a much more satisfying entry in Hickman’s multi-layered Marvel concerto.

While Jonathan Hickman’s plotting and worldbuilding is always a reliable storytelling weapon, artist Esad Ribic and colorist Ive Svorcina’s pages always hit their targets in the most stylish way possible. Though not given near as many explosions and battles to render this time around, Ribic and Svorcina still aquit themselves beautifully to the epic vistas and twisted kingdoms of Secret Wars #2. Ribic, an artist used to epic stories having knocked many an issue of Thor: God of Thunder out of the park, balances the soaring visuals of the Battleworld landscapes with tight, intimate establishing panels of characters delivering exposition, all the while never dropping his signature expressive character faces. Colorist Ive Svorcina also brings his A-game with more than a few scene-centric color choices that pushes Secret Wars #2 over from just a good comic to a great comic. Example include the crimsons and deep reds that make up Baron Sinister’s keep, the unnatural hunter greens that shine through the halls of Doomgard, and the subtle whites that he weaves in and out of the costumes of Doom’s inner circle; making them nightmarish versions of the much beloved Future Foundation costumes from just a few years ago. Secret Wars has promised time and time again that it was going to be epic and game-changing, and with an art team like Ribic and Svorcina, it's hard to not believe the hype.

Events are a dime a dozen in comics, but Secret Wars so far has felt less like an event and more like a huge ending of a story started all the way back in the heady days of "Marvel NOW!" After the dust settled on the destruction of the last incursion, something wholly new and wild was presented to us in the form of Secret Wars #2. How often can one say that about a major comic event? Every step of the story up til now has been carefully planned and foreshadowed and I would be very surprised if everything afterward wasn’t planned with the same eye for detail. Jonathan Hickman, Esad Ribic, and Ive Svorcina have an epic tale to tale in the pages of Secret Wars, and our only job is to enjoy it. All hope may very well lie in Doom right now, but the trials of Battleworld still await.

Credit: Archaia / BOOM! Studios

Lantern City #1
Written by Paul Jenkins and Matthew Daley
Art by Carlos Magno and Chris Blythe
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by Archaia
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

No matter what people say, there’s nothing wrong with a textbook approach to things. In Lantern City #1, writers Paul Jenkins and Matthew Daley hit all the narrative beats that make a successful first issue: namely, a clear protagonist, with clear motivations and a clear goal they’re working towards. By the middle of the issue, you know everything you need to know about our protagonist Sander to get behind him as a character; by the end of the issue, you have everything you need to know about the story to become invested in it.

Ultimately, there’s nothing substantially new that Lantern City adds to the steampunk dystopian genre. It’s all - again - very textbook: our protagonist is lower class, oppressed, and struggling to make ends meet for a wife and child. This book certainly has a “been there, done that” sort of feel to it, but Jenkins and Daley are able to insert unique circumstances that make these characters more than interesting enough to carry the plot before the story takes over. Sander works at a fruit plantation where workers are chained together in pairs—this serves as the opening scene of the issue. Immediately, we’re given a glimpse into the culture that not only gives us the background of our protagonist, but also gives us an indication for how these people live their daily lives. Again, it’s textbook, but that’s what makes the writing solid and gives us enough of a foundation to quickly move past the things we don’t know and become more interested in the things we do.

One of the major missed opportunities of Lantern City #1 is the marked absence of any visible or obvious diversity. The entirety of the main cast appears white, as do the background characters, though those are harder to tell because large groups of people are shown at night, where there are more shadows and darker coloring. With everything that’s going on in the world, seeing a character of color subvert the control of an oppressive majority and police power could have been an empowering storyline. Any diversity whatsoever in this book would have been appreciated, because its absence is hard to miss because of the subject matter. It’s impossible to tell if the ethnicity or physical ability of the characters were up to the artist’s or the writer’s interpretations, but something had to be missed when there are scenes with near a hundred protesting and impoverished men that all share the same build, skin color, and clothing style.

That’s, of course, not to say that Carlos Magno and Chris Blythe aren’t on point with the art at a technical level. In fact, the style that they bring to this steampunk world is incredible. From the armor of the guards to the panels of the sprawling city, everything looks and feels as it we would expect from a steampunk story. With steampunk’s popularity, it’s not that difficult to imagine a steampunk world, but Magno and Blythe take the opportunities in panels to expand on the backgrounds to create a fully unique and visualized world. This ultimately helps ground us in the narrative and keeps us engaged. The panel breakdowns got a little repetitive at times, but overall the artwork was a solid enhancement to the story and kept things moving.

The story is fairly linear, which Jenkins and Daley use to their advantage. Without many distractions or flashbacks used as exposition, the writing team pushes the plot forward and consistently gives Sander obstacles to overcome before the overarching goal organically appears. The only thing that’s missing is some spark that’s hard to quantify or put into words. While there are many elements that are compelling throughout Lantern City, there’s nothing that makes us excited about what’s on the next page. Part of that probably comes from the fact that this is a story we feel has been told before, but it ultimately detracts from the otherwise solid writing and story.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Darth Vader #5
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Salvador Larroca and Edgar Delgado
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Stories often surprise us. Sometimes, those surprises make us feel great; other times, those surprises make us feel duped. Darth Vader #5 made me feel duped in the best possible way because writer Kieron Gillen gave me something I didn’t expect at all, something that exceeded my original expectations.

The last issue had it all set up: Darth Vader found out that he’s replaceable, as everyone is, and goes off to confront the people who could one day take his place. Of course, judging by the cover, I expected there to be a massive lightsaber showdown between Darth Vader and a couple of Sith acolyte wannabes. What Gillen gave us, however, are beings with limited force capabilities enhanced with lightsabers and technology that simulate force ability. And which do you think is cooler? Hint: it’s the one Gillen gives us on the page.

Gillen took a big risk with this issue and it really paid off. The actual fighting of this issue between Vader and the usurpers really only lasts a page and a half - the rest is saved for the next issue - but that’s all we need to become obsessed with what Gillen has created and what Salvador Larroca has visually brought to life. Whereas the Jedi of old would use the Force to flip to safety, these newcomers use rocket boots; whereas Jedi likened their blades as extensions of the self, these newcomers use gadgets that let them use multiple lightsabers at once. Though we don’t know much, Gillen shows us just enough of this new team to make us interested. It’s unfortunate that we know there’s no way that Darth Vader would be overcome and that he’s eventually going to win, but that only increases the tension to figure out how he’s going to overcome the odds Gillen has stacked against him.

All of this plays into the engagement of the issue and how - by the time Vader meets the team - you’ll find yourself flipping page to page rather quickly until the end because you can’t wait to find out what happens next. This ultimately creates a problem with the pace of the issue, where you’ll find yourself moving through the beginning slowly and the end too quickly. This makes reveals like the Emperor’s presence feel missed, because you’ll continue reading right past it, hoping the fight breaks out. It’s a shame because the Emperor should always be an incredibly foreboding presence that stops forward momentum of any kind to make the spotlight on him, but he only serves as a distraction from the main event.

That being said, there’s really not too much that goes on prior to Darth Vader’s confrontation. Sure, it’s always nice to see Vader carve his way through the cannon fodder, but seeing the ending made it feel like we were cheated out of pages that could have been devoted to an actual fight. It didn’t help that there were multiple pages that looked incredibly similar due to the panel breakdowns, angles, and perspectives. Besides one or two panels throughout the issue, much of the fighting took a monotonous tone from the visuals. The art sometimes made the story where there was only pure action feel languid and a chore to get through, like you had to wait to get to the really good stuff. With what Larroca and colorist Edgar Delgado were given, however, it feels like they did the best they could. Of course, despite the lack of visual variety, the art team continues to make Vader look stylistically incredible in all the fighting he does.

Darth Vader #5 continues to build on Gillen’s success of writing the Dark Lord of the Sith. As this arc draws to a climax, this issue sets Gillen and the entire team up for an explosive confrontation where they can really let their imaginations run wile. Hopefully, they’ll take advantage of the narrative they’ve set up and give us a showdown that’ll make even Obi-Wan wince from beyond the grave.

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