Best Shots Advance Reviews: BATMAN #41 (9/10), STARVE #1, More

DC Comics June 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Batman #41 cover
Batman #41 cover
Credit: DC Comics

Batman #41
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

"Right here...right now...you are...the Batman."

Announced last month, it was official that Jim Gordon would don the Bat-mantle and become Gotham's new Dark Knight. Fans voiced their hesitation on the new direction, fearing this could be another Jean-Paul Valley incident. Given the robot Bat-suit, they were right - at least in terms of first impressions. In context though, Batman's new status quo has the possibility to work for quite a while.

Changing up the Bat-Mantle is not a new concept, but what makes Gordon the perfect replacement for Batman in this universe? Scott Snyder takes the timeline going back and forth from Gordon's first adventure as the new Dark Knight, to Commissioner Sawyer trying to get the longtime cop to assume the role. The facts are laid out before him as other police candidates fight it out: Gordon was a Marine, he's only 46 years old, he knows the city in and out, and he was allies with the original Batman. Through all of that, Gordon still doesn't believe he's the right man for the job. And that's why this issue excels.

One of the main driving factors of Batman has always been the relationship, strained or otherwise, of Batman and Jim Gordon. You almost feel at times that Gordon could be the Batman if Batman worked within the system, and that's what Snyder has produced here. Would Batman have succeeded if he worked with the police and was deputized officially? Will this Batman working with the system the answer that Gotham needs? These are the questions burning through Gordon's brain right before he agrees to sign on.

Four years into his run on Batman, and there's still never enough praise for Greg Capullo's cinematic panel construction. Gordon's debut here is strong and makes it believable with the superb action that the art team throws at you. There are mistakes, made and this sort of hearkens back to Kyle Rayner's first outing as a Green Lantern, where he is forced to learn on this new job quickly. The colors of the energy monster that Gordon slugs it out with are sharp, and it's looking that Gordon's rogues might differ from the usual fare. Also, Gordon's revised design is great, too. Going back to the Marine's standard high and tight haircut and beardless face de-ages the man even more, giving him a stronger look.

The actual Bat-suit itself - not the robo-suit - is something cool as well. It's a contemporary look to the Batman with the Bat-sigil resembling a badge in a way with the gold outline. Capullo's added "sci-fi" element visuals to Gotham's atmosphere is interesting. It's like we've gone from pulp/noir to something out of Robocop. With Robocop, Alex Murphy was transformed into a symbol, and Gordon has done the same thing here. Batman is now the symbol of the GCPD. The times, they are a-changin'.

With Batman #41 being the beginning of the changing of the guard, it's a testament of Batman's legacy not only as a character, but a symbol for criminals to live in fear of. It is comics after all, and nobody really stays dead, so this could be a phase, or this could be something long-term. In the end though, this is something different and strange, and something I'm ready to embrace.

Midnight Society: The Black Lake #1
Midnight Society: The Black Lake #1
Credit: Dark Horse

Midnight Society: The Black Lake #1
Written by Drew Edward Johnson
Art by Drew Edward Johnson and Lizzy John
Lettering by Steve Dutro
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Tally ho! Drew Edward Johnson embarks on his first creator-owned series, and he's pulling double-duty, providing both the script and artwork for Midnight Society: The Black Lake #1. Partly a Victorian-styled adventure of conquest and a modern Hellboy-style slice of magical realism, Midnight Society: The Black Lake #1 is an immediately impressive comic book.

Forty years ago, a duo of intrepid adventurers sought valuable, living proof of magical creatures. Now, Secret Agent Matilda Finn is en route to the infamous Loch Ness, in search of England’s top cryptozoologist. With these two plots, writer Drew Edward Johnson almost perfectly splits the issue into two. The first half of the issue is a Wellsian tale of discovery, featuring a battle against an atavistic foe and the worrying ethical ramifications of their prey’s capture. Aesthetically, this prologue is draped in Victorian-era belts, buckles and monocles, not to mention home-made flying contraption and shrinking vests. It's a celebration of high adventure as well as a solid backbone to the universe of the Midnight Society.

In the second half, Johnson introduces Matilda Finn, the book’s protagonist. Johnson fills these last 12 pages with gravitas, immediately introducing Matilda as a woman of great importance with a career of unending stress. The seeds that Johnson planted in the first half of the issue soon begin to sprout as we meet an aged version of an established character who sets Matilda on the path towards The Black Lake.

Johnson's script is dense and filled with distinct and memorable characters. Elements of conflict and mystery are both deftly set up for future issues, while empathetically communicating Matilda's inner turmoil. From pacing to dialogue, this is one finely tuned script.

Visually, Johnson relies on realistically detailed human faces to carry his script, although he struggles to depict emotion. While Johnson’s characters are impressive renderings in their own right, they often seem frozen in time; blankly neutral when they should be wracked with emotion. Elsewhere, his action sequences and general body posing are impressively kinetic. A Pixie springs from the shadows as an imposing mass of sinewy limbs and a drooling mouth. In a quieter moment, Matilda clearly reflects the stresses of the world as she stands slumped in the shower.

Elsewhere, colorist Lizzy John's kaleidoscope of color adds an atmospheric touch to this solid issue. A naked flame illuminates a dank cave with a warm orange, providing contrast to leathery black Pixie hides and the white shirt / leather ensembles of our plucky adventurers. In the modern day, bright red and sea-foam green reflect the evocative and nautical nature of Matilda’s mission, whilet the harsh lakes of Scotland are grey and overcast.

As the issue winds towards its climax, the concept begins to seem a little worn. Johnson uses that cliched trope of “an ordinary reception area that leads into a magical wooooorld!”, and we've all seen that in everything from Harry Potter to Men in Black to R.I.P.D. Still, Johnson manages to add a fun little twist on the trope, using technology that (once again) was established in the issue’s prologue.

Drew Edward Johnson has started off on the right foot here. With a rock-solid script and striking artwork, Midnight Society: The Black Lake #1 is a gem of a comic book. Sure, there’s a little stiffness to Johnson’s facial expressions and the general conceit may seem a little worn, but these niggles hardly detract from the issue’s overall quality.

Credit: Image Comics

Starve #1
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Danijel Zezelj and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Starve centers on a celebrity chef, and if decades of cooking shows have taught us anything, presentation and hidden flavors are what the judges are always looking for. Which is important to keep in mind when approaching this creator-owned work, which is ostensibly a spin on a familiar yarn. Yet as the issue rolls on, we begin to notice that each of the characters have their own distinct notes, giving us reason to pause and savor it a little longer.

The first half-dozen pages or so painstakingly spend time establishing protagonist Gavin Cruikshank as a man in exile, something that could also be gleaned through osmosis in the pages that follow. It might seem like an odd way to start, given that the rest of the issue is a compelling series of rapid-fire character introductions that give us a perfect picture of Gavin’s environment, but Wood is interested in world building from the outset. It’s a world in chaos, after all, where economies are falling and the rich are getting even richer. The TV show he once started as a travelogue is now a giant gladiatorial cook-off, and he is summoned by the powers that be from his sabbatical to bring his celebrity status to a vastly changed industry.

The shopfront is a commentary on the state of the “reality” entertainment industry, and its means of keeping the masses distracted from the profiteering of the “one percent.” In this sense, it has a lot in common with Transmetropolitan, as you could easily add a sprinkle of Spider Jerusalem to any celebrity chef that you can think of. Swap out journalism for cooking, and Gavin and Spider might just be soul brothers in the multiverse. Indeed, by the end of this first issue, there’s little doubt that Gavin will do not anything that’s not on his terms, and we see the seeds of a plan hatching, one that may not pay off until many issue down the line.

Yet at a more fundamental level, it’s a character-driven story, and without heavy exposition, Wood introduces the key players in quick succession. An estranged wife and daughter, and the former is determined to take the stakes in “Starve” that she (perhaps rightfully) believes belong to her. Roman Algiers, Gavin’s “number one rival,” who stepped in to fill the void during Gavin’s absence. Of course, there’s Gavin himself, who really only emerges in all of his glory in a shockingly brilliant final page, and figure who (like Spider Jerusalem) will “burn this whole place to the ground” in order to do things his own way.

Former DMZ collaborator Danijel Zezelj brings this messy world to life in vivid Dave Stewart colors. In fact, the three co-owners of the concept have worked seamlessly together to unveil this world in their own fashion. The opening pages are deliberately chaotic, a rapid fire series of vignettes designed to showcase the bubble Gavin has encased himself inside. As we get a glimpse of the city he returns to, it is far more structured and refine: the steps of a brownstone, or the uniformity of the skyline. Stewart’s colors delineate the areas by mood: a sickly green for the “somewhere” in Southeast Asian, cold grays and browns in transit or a fiery tiger motif as a backdrop to his ex-wife Greer. When Gavin steps on the set of his show, everything is bathed in a golden light, and the panelling mirrors the close-quartered, visceral imagery of the opening scenes.

Starve is a fascinating premise, mostly due to the compelling nature of the characters Wood has introduced here. Wood takes what would otherwise be a tried and true concept and elevates it into not just a critique of modern media, but a potential character study of operatic proportions.

The Disciples #1
The Disciples #1
Credit: Black Mask Studios

The Disciples #1
Written by Steve Niles
Art by Christopher Mitten and Jay Fotos
Lettering by Thomas Mauer
Published by Black Mask Studios
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Black Mask Studios has come a long way since Occupy Comics #1. Since its debut, the fledgling publisher has gained critical and commercial success with stellar titles like We Can Never Go Home Again and Space Riders. Now with their newest series, The Disciples, Black Mask looks to tap into the lucrative horror genre. Written by genre vet Steve Niles and illustrated by his 30 Days of Night cohort Christopher Mitten, The Disciples tells the story of a ragtag group of space travelers who are tasked with rescuing a senator’s daughter from the thrall of a cult leader who has set up shop on Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons. Like most tales like this, nothing as what it seems, and the crew may be facing more than just a mere madman and his space cult. The Disciples #1 is a deliberately paced debut issue that starts creepy and slowly ratchets up the dread until the last page, proving once again that Black Mask Studios is a publisher to be reckoned with.

The space around Jupiter is filled with corpses and a lone ship floats through the dead, hanging in space like a silent ship passing in the night. This is the first image presented in The Disciples #1. Writer Steve Niles aims for a shock within the first two pages and then quickly downshifts into exposition mode as he introduces our protagonists. Niles, a mainstay of the horror genre, doesn’t allow himself to get caught up in the trappings of sci-fi and instead smartly focuses on character as well as mood. Our crew, Rick, Dasmarr, and an unnamed third, start and end this debut as ciphers, but Niles’ trademark banter gives the reader a sense of familiarity and camaraderie amongst the crew. We may not know these characters just yet, but they are written in such a way that the audience can infer that this isn’t their first rodeo.

While the characters aren’t giving much away yet, Niles slowly layers, through dialogue, juicy bits of world-building that establishes the state of this far-flung future and a few interesting tidbits about the series’ antagonist, pharmaceutical executive turned holy man, McCauley Richmond. It seems that after buying an entire town in Florida for his faithful, Richmond turned his eyes toward the stars and staked his claim into the rapidly expanding moon market of the future, setting up a compound on one of Jupiter’s largest moons. On top of all of this, the human race has apparently made contact with a race of squid-like aliens that emerged from Europa, but Steve Niles keeps that trump card in his pocket for now, hopefully to deploy in a later issue when he can properly scare the pants off of us with their surely grotesque appearance. What The Disciples #1 lacks in character development, it more than makes up for in establishing its own vision of the future, setting a firm groundwork for the rest of the series to come.

Instrumental in establishing that groundwork is artist Christopher Mitten along with colorist Jay Fotos. Mitten’s rough hewn and sketchy pencils add to the DIY look and feel of Niles’ picture of the future, however, it isn’t all Ridley Scott-like grunge and grit. Mitten also delivers a beautiful sequence of the Starship Venture in the midst of a hyper-jump. This sequence may not contain any splash pages or dominating panels, but Mitten’s take on deep space captures the vastness of space as well as the smallness of our crew’s boat amid celestial bodies in just a few well constructed panels. Mitten, also a vet of the horror genre, goes for the gusto in the book’s two shocking displays of morbidity. Not many artists can draw a corpse like Christopher Mitten, and The Disciples #1‘s opening is filled with Mitten’s glorious dead. Aiding in this necrotic beauty is colorist Jay Fotos who renders Mitten’s pencils with sickly grays, a myriad of metallics, and gorgeously colored star fields.

The Disciples #1 isn’t a perfect horror debut for Black Mask Studios, but it is an effective one. Steve Niles, Jonathan Mitten and Jay Fotos deliver a first issue that is equal parts private eye procedural and horror yarn, all condensed into a a well-constructed science fiction landscape that can only be expanded in further issues. Horror is a tricky genre to tackle in comics. It can either come across as exploitation or end up feeling bone-dry as it ramps up to actual scares. The Disciples #1 avoids both of these extremes and settles itself into a creepy middle ground that promises bigger and better scares later on. This debut issue is yet another reason to stand up and take notice of Black Mask Studios and a worthy example of just what kind of stories you can experience when you look beyond established imprints.

In Case You Missed It!

Credit: Archie Comics

Archie #666 (Published by Archie Comics; Review by Erika D. Peterman; ’Rama Rating: 6 out of 10): While he’s good-hearted, Archie Andrews has an extensive catalog of screw-ups. His pratfalls, mishaps and misunderstandings are staples of many classic Archie stories, and this comic acknowledges that history throughout. Archie #666 is significant in that it’s the last issue before the flagship title is re-launched with a new creative team — Mark Waid and Fiona Staples — and a radically different, modern look. Yet this story wouldn’t be out of place in any typical Archie digest. After one mistake too many, Archie faces expulsion from Riverdale High unless he can fix the latest huge mess he’s made. Much of Archie #666 consists of flashbacks of him accidentally wreaking havoc, and it’s hard to blame Mr. Weatherbee for wanting to get rid of the kid. Archie’s pals make the case for him as a well meaning if clumsy friend, but the three-part issue spends too much time showing a highlight reel of his bungling. A few panels of Archie fails go a long way. There are some clever nods to edgier titles like Afterlife with Archie, and the book has moments of wholesome charm. As usual, Reggie gets a funny, scene-stealing moment. The most appealing ingredient is the sharp artwork by Dan Parent, Fernando Ruiz and Tim Kennedy. Their takes are slightly different, but they work well together in a multi-chapter story. Glenn Whitmore’s colors are appropriately bright and lively. Archie #666 will not go down in history as a particularly memorable comic. However, longtime readers who love the character will likely enjoy parts of this farewell to an era.

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