Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN #42, CIVIL WAR #1, JLA #2, More

DC Comics July 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Batman #42
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

There’s a moment in this issue of Batman where Jim Gordon, now sporting the new robotic suit of armor as Gotham police department's new defender, looks down over the city as he readies to launch. He wonders if it will ever stop being strange seeing the city not from the street level, but as a whole. It’s a strangeness that followers of DC’s arguably most popular character have undoubtedly been feeling for the last few months, since the reveal of the “new” Batman and the apparent death of the first. Bruce Wayne has worn the mantle of the Bat for so long that we just accept this was always going to be the case. Of course, when he was broken or went missing in time, he was replaced by substitutes. Yet for the perhaps the first time, this book is (to borrow Gordon’s own words) “staring back, challenging you.”

From the opening pages, depicting action figures of the “old” and “new” Batmen facing off, Scott Snyder is in a direct dialogue with the audience. It’s a framing device that allows him to ask the same questions that the reader is asking. “I’m just waiting for the old Batman to come back,” one of the toy owners says later. It’s a deliberate provocation, one that he contradicts almost immediately when the question arises with a massive reveal. Yet in the lead-up, Snyder also purposefully discombobulates readers, flipping back and forth between time frames to keep us on our toes. It’s a motif that has served him well throughout the last few arcs, giving us time to suss out the relationship that this Batman has with Gotham without slowing down the pace of the action.

Gordon’s Batman has his first supervillain in this issue, and the super-smackdowns are a far cry from the dark corners of discovery that characterized Snyder and Capullo’s initial “Court of Owls” arc. Yet for all of the super-heroics, and they are legitimately impressive, Snyder still manages to return us to the “detective” aspect of the story. Jim Gordon may not be the world’s greatest detective, but he is still a cop, and the delicate balance he maintains between the offices of power, fellow cops and his inner circle is a fascinating dichotomy. Batman as a fully armed operative of the state is not a burden Bruce Wayne had to bear, but a “deputized Batman” playing by the rules is also something new and exciting. It’s the flip side of the coin Gordon struggled with in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, where he weighed the cost of Batman’s disregard for the system with the good he might do.

Greg Capullo is having a field day with this new world, now fully confident in swinging this Batsuit around town in all of its glory. With the new villain, a combination of Clayface and the swirling maelstrom of Marvel’s Sandman, he manages to transform pieces of the city into a weapon being used against Batman. His design for the new Batmobile, or “Bat-Truck,” as it is quickly dubbed, is as hilarious as it is cool, but it is summarily trashed, as if to suggest that Capullo has a dozen more designs up his sleeve to try out on us. A nod should also be given to Plascencia’s color art, who has not only taken a lighter approach to the palette for this new hero, but bookends the issue with a neon bright set of scenes that could either suggest optimism or an illusion.

As the issue itself suggests, there is little point in pondering whether this is Batman for too long. “You worry about Batman meaning something to people,” argues Julia Perry/Pennyworth, “you’ll go down fast. If you do it your way, the things you belive in, the things you stad for? Batman will stand for those too.” The message from his crew is loud and clear: if Gordon is true to himself, Batman will stand for all of those things as well. Yet Snyder might be reassuring himself here, having rarely shied away from telling the kinds of Batman stories he has always wanted to tell. Even with the bombshell of a closing panel, which leaves us with perhaps the biggest mystery of them all, this issue of Batman is a statement on the Dark Knight, no matter who wears the cowl.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Civil War #1
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan and Sunny Gho
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The thing about the Marvel Universe is that it's the world outside your window. Sure, there might be Asgardians and Spider-People and tech-suit-wearing billionaires flying around, but it's New York - there's plenty of weirder things going on. Yet Marvel's naturalistic approach has extended to its settings, placing human characters in human contexts - and that's the reason why the original Civil War sold in such gangbuster numbers. We live in a world that's politically divided, with an ongoing battle between liberty and security - why wouldn't Marvel's best and brightest have a similar philosophical divide?

Unfortunately, that's not where we're at in this latest Secret Wars tie-in series. Sometimes escalation isn't always the best thing for a sequel, as Charles Soule and Leinil Francis Yu multiply everything they saw in the original Civil War, and make it almost completely unrelatable in the process. There's a lot of exposition and a lot of stern negotiations here, but little of the spark that came before.

After three caption-heavy pages explaining why we're watching these superheroes pound each other, Soule escalates the war further by not just having some schoolchildren get killed - instead, Soule gets even more bloodthirsty, as we witness the destruction of St. Louis, after the teleporter known as Cloak accidentally funnels an exploding super-prison through the city. It reads like a What If? comic, as Soule then brings us six years into a future where Captain America never surrendered - thanks to a Skrull invasion and a failed coup by Norman Osborn, the country has now been split in two, with Tony Stark leading a packed East Coast tempered by law and order, and Steve Rogers running a West Coast collective based on personal freedom for peaceful superhumans.

Similar to the way that the Ultimate Universe collapsed, Soule's setting doesn't ring true, and unfortunately, in this first issue, he doesn't quite make enough strides to make this shake-up worth it. Having a gray-haired Tony Stark shacking up with She-Hulk or giving Peter Parker the Falcon's wings doesn't hit particularly hard, as Soule spends a huge amount of his 30-page story either delivering exposition or having Steve and Tony exchange platitudes. While these same platitudes were going on in Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's Civil War, it was driven forward by action and set pieces - it was excellent window-dressing for the hero-on-hero conflict we all wanted. Here, however, it's about as exciting as C-SPAN.

Artwise, Leinil Yu gives Marvel's heroes a new coat of paint by adding a layer of technology to each of their outfits - that said, I wouldn't necessarily argue that these are particularly iconic designs, as all this plating and camo pants starts to make these characters look largely interchangeable. Additionally, Yu is hit or miss when it comes to his character compositions - entrances like a Tank Girl-esque Stature look great, but the crowded fight sequences near the beginning feel way too static. The big hurdle here, unfortunately, is with the color, as Sunny Gho's rendered style still comes off as way too bright, even flat for a story that's supposed to be as multilayered as this.

It's disappointing for me to write a review like this, because on paper, this should have been a slam dunk. Charles Soule and Leinil Yu revisiting the most popular Marvel storyline of the past decade? Sign me up, right? But unfortunately, this opening salvo feels more like a failure to launch - there's too much navel-gazing and not enough action, making these political debates feel academic rather than visceral. There's too much distance in this nearly post-apocalyptic world for us to truly see Civil War as an allegory anymore - instead, this is one battle that seems to have lasted well past its welcome.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League of America #2
Written by Bryan Hitch
Art by Bryan Hitch, Daniel Henriques, Andrew Currie and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Ever since DC's relaunch in 2011, it's been hard not to tense up a little when books have had one creator as both writer and artist. While historically, some of the best talents in the business have been able to do both jobs - Frank Miller, Walt Simonson, Will Eisner himself - but in more recent years, the results of writer/artists at the Big Two have largely been stylish visuals with meandering plots underneath.

Thank goodness that's not the case with Justice League of America.

After an action-packed first issue, Bryan Hitch takes a slower - and surprisingly reflective - tone with his sophomore effort, as the Kryptonian god known as Rao makes his landing on the planet Earth. While some may bristle as the pacing or the heavy focus on Superman, it's clear that the one-time artist behind The Ultimates and The Authority has picked up more than just a thing or two from his A-list former collaborators, showing that Hitch has more to bring to the table than just his blockbuster artwork.

In some ways, Hitch's second issue reminds me a lot of the first issue of Grant Morrison's JLA, as the entire world reels from Rao's appearance. While oftentimes superheroes seem to act in a vacuum, with ordinary people only appearing as supporting characters or as collateral damage, Hitch really uses his page count to explore the effect of superheroic fallout on the rest of the society. Newscasts delier all the exposition we need, as Rao provides a surprisingly timely look at religion - it's clear there's something lurking underneath the surface, Scientology-style, but would you argue with an alien who can cure cancer?

As Rao makes waves, Hitch also provides some nice character beats for the rest of the team. Superman gets the majority of the page count here - when a Kryptonian god touches down, that's a sensible outcome - and it's endearing the way that Clark immediately trusts this lost piece of his culture. Aquaman, meanwhile, might get the best scene in the book, providing a purely atheist standpoint that gives the character some interesting texture. Why would you believe in Poseidon as a god when you're visited with alien deities every other Wednesday? Yet some of Hitch's characterization may come off a bit controversial, particularly Batman, whose black-and-white views on criminals come off as harsh even for him.

All of this work is anchored by Hitch's artwork, which looks expansive and sweeping, enough to fit in his occasionally overwritten dialogue. Drenched in reds by colorist Alex Sinclair, the first encounter between Rao and Superman is beautiful, evoking everything from Michelangelo to Crisis on Infinite Earths. There's a sense of design that can't be understated here, from the looming statues in underwater Atlantis, to the kind of funny, uncomfortable way that Cyborg sits as he rides on the back of Batman's Bat-Pod. And the last two pages? Wow, there is so much beautiful destruction, and it lends to the scale that Hitch is so well-known for.

While there are a few things that might set off some critics - namely, the slower pacing, and the fact that the Flash, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman get little if any play two issues in - there's so much more that this book does right, that it's hard to argue. There's a lot of setup in Justice League of America #2, but it's hard to cry decompression when you're examining the work of a creator whose work was so influential that it almost single-handedly launched the trend of decompression across the industry. In rare cases, a slow story doesn't mean it's a bad one - and Hitch is happy to be one of those exceptions. If you've been hesitant to pick up this book because of Hitch's untested skills as a writer, jump in - you won't be disappointed.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Age of Apocalypse #1
Written by Fabian Nicieza
Art by Gerardo Sandoval and David Curiel
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Age of Apocalypse’s takeover of Marvel’s X-titles in 1995 was an exciting reimagining at the time, and the event clearly had its fans. Earth-295 has been revisited many times over the last 20 years, as creators have found new ways to work the dystopian future versions of these characters into new stories. One of the crossovers original architects, Fabian Nicieza, gets to return to that world with an appropriately ‘90s-influenced artist in tow in an effort to recapture some of that original magic. Unfortunately, going back to the well doesn’t really work this time around.

Nicieza has written more than his fair share of Marvel Comics, including stints on X-Men, New Warriors and Cable & Deadpool to name a few. He’s also no stranger to the Age of Apocalypse characters, having been part of their creation. But there’s something cold about this script. Nicieza jumps right into a story seemingly already in progress, and it forces readers to play catch up with the narrative. By the time that Nicieza gets a moment for exposition, he’s stopped the narrative dead in its tracks. It gives the book a herky-jerky, stop-and-start feel that negatively affects the reading experience. Many readers might not be familiar with these characters in this form or their role in this version of the world. On top of that, even readers familiar with the original crossover have to pay attention to see what’s been remixed as a result of Secret Wars. The result is a lot of sound and fury and gnashing of teeth but nothing of much substance.

But if you were looking for a book that looks like an X-book from the Age of Apocalypse era, Gerardo Sandoval has got you covered. His linework exists at the intersection of Joe Madureira, Humberto Ramos and Chris Bachalo, and he really makes it feel like you’re reading some long-lost Age of Apocalypse issue. The problem is that, as strong as his character renderings are, they are overshadowed by an inconsistent grasp of visual storytelling. Sandoval’s choice of angle for his panels pinballs between workable and distractingly unclear in smaller close-ups. He also inexplicably jumps to medium and bird’s eye shots for no discernible reason. The confusion siphons the work of any energy it might have had which is surprising given Sandoval’s fairly bouncy character designs.

Maybe it’s time to put this concept on the shelf. Age of Apocalypse holds a lot of nostalgia for many readers of a certain age (including this reviewer), but this is a bit of a jumbled mess. The stakes are unclear. The characters ring a bit hollow. The art is stylistically strong but that can’t overcome the lack of visual clarity on display. We like to remember the ‘90s as a time of excess and bad comics. Maybe this was a meta-commentary on that, but I doubt it. Instead of an interesting new chapter in the Age of Apocalypse, all we get is a middling Secret Wars tie-in.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League United #11
Written by Jeff Parker
Art by Travel Foreman and Jeromy Cox
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

It's ironic that Justice League United's plot is all about picking the right team for the right mission - because that's a lesson that might have better served this book's editorial team. Fresh from Convergence, this title seems to be taking a page out of the DC's Legends of Tomorrow playbook, as Jeff Parker brings in a rotating team of hand-picked heroes and villains to deal with problems as they arise. Unfortunately, his script doesn't mesh well with Travel Foreman's artwork, as this team still doesn't provide enough of a hook to make this book worth your dollars.

On paper, you'd think that this sort of book is right up Jeff Parker's wheelhouse - ever since his work on Agents of Atlas, Parker has been synonymous with quirky, mish-mashed teams that thrive because of their eclectic charm. Unfortunately, very little of that weird magnetism carries over to Justice League United, as Adam Strange guides Alanna Strange, Animal Man, Stargirl and Equinox to assemble a group of elementals and magicians to combat the Breakers, anomalies which manipulate and break the laws of physics.

The problem with this approach is three-fold: First and foremost, this faceless threat feels like half-baked storytelling, robbing the book of tension and stakes - are you really going to be worried about a bunch of all-powerful demigods fighting against some anonymous pink blobs? But more importantly, Parker's pacing is all off here - sure, he has some potential with new picks like Jason Blood, Swamp Thing, Poison Ivy and Queen Mera of Atlantis, but he has to jump between them so fast, that he's never really able to give us any compelling characterization. Without that quirky characterization - literally, any reason for us to relate to characters like Blood or Swamp Thing, or even a primer on Alanna's prior relationship with the now-omniscient Adam Strange - there's little reason to care about anyone on this team.

It also doesn't help that artist Travel Foreman is caught in a script that doesn't know whether it wants to go bright and accessible or dark and gloomy. Having characters like Etrigan and Swamp Thing play to Foreman's strengths, particularly during a sequence where we see Jason Blood fighting against some sliced-up corpses - that said, his creepy style doesn't play well with Parker's more human characters, particularly not perky young women like Stargirl or Equinox. Foreman does his best work when he's able to successfully subvert normal comic book layouts, such as when Adam Strange is surfing the mobius strips of a Zeta beam, but other times his compositions are way off, flat-tiring beats like Equinox rescuing Jason Blood from some mystical opponents.

What's frustrating about a book like Justice League United is that from the get-go, you understand the potential behind this book - this is the perfect opportunity to showcase some lesser-known characters and make them shine. Indeed, the rotating cast lends plenty of room for tension as well as character-defining moments, not dissimilar to Jon Ostrander's run on Suicide Squad. But ultimately, you have to look at the book that's in front of you - this is hardly a defining Justice League, and this is hardly a good first impression for this team. Parker and Foreman are both talented creators, but Justice League United does not feel like a good fit for them.

Credit: DC Comics

Starfire #2
Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner
Art by Emanuela Lupacchino, Ray McCarthy and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

With her eye-catching design and her one-of-a-kind disposition, it's surprising in hindsight that DC Comics hasn't given Starfire her own ongoing series before now. With Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner and Emanuela Lupaccihno giving the one-time Teen Titan a fresh start on the beaches of Miami, there may be a little bit of a tonal inconsistency to this creative team, but between the writing and the art, there's still a lot to like about this series.

For me, the best way to describe Starfire is it's like an ice cream pizza - two great things that I don't know if they necessarily go perfectly together. Let me try to explain, starting with the wonderful artwork of Emanuela Lupacchino. Lupacchino does some superb work with Starfire, reminding me a bit of a cross between the Dodsons and R.B. Silva - her linework is super-clean, thanks to the inking of Ray McCarthy, and her characters are expressive rather than exploitative. In particular, I love Lupacchino's take on Starfire - when you think about how the character was relaunched purely for the male gaze during Red Hood and the Outlaws, it's nice to see her (comparatively) more conservative makeover. Hi-Fi also dominates with the colors here, giving Kori a real energy and vibrance that energizes this entire comic.

While Lupacchino gives Kori a less sultry look, though, her artwork still has plenty of curves, which I think does cause a little bit of static when it comes to Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner's script, which has Kori pulling overtime as she rescues hapless Floridians during a hurricane. Fans of Teen Titans Go! will likely adore Palmiotti and Conner's take on the Terrific Tamaranian - she's a complete wide-eyed innocent, and while she might be a bit naive (she doesn't know what the phrase "Give me a hand" means, for example), she's also caring and generous to the point where you'll still adore her. Palmiotti and Conner take a page from their Harley Quinn playbook with the pacing, cutting to different scenes featuring the weird Miami residents Kori has to save. While not all of the jokes land, it's a breezy way to pick up the pace, showing this hurricane is a wide-ranging phenomenon that will give Kori plenty of challenges.

Admittedly, of course, there's a little bit of a focus problem to Starfire, which is exacerbated some by the more adult art alongside the more juvenile scripting. This is something that Palmiotti and Conner suffer with in Harley Quinn, as well, adding just one or two too many plot points in an already overstuffed story - do we really need another three pages showing off a giant orange monster, when we've already got Kori being challenged enough by Mother Nature herself? Additionally, Palmiotti and Conner throw in so many characters into this comic book that it's hard to tell which are more self-indulgent one-off gags and which are going to be important for the long haul.

While there may be some that are turned off by the either the writing or the art, I think there's going to be far more people who latch on to one or the other - in a lot of ways, I think Starfire may be appealing to more audiences than one by this mismatched approach. It's unclear if Starfire's move to Miami will ultimately be the best for her as a character, but as far as sophomore issues go, this is a strong, simple plot with some truly gorgeous artwork. In other words, not even a hurricane can rain on this girl's parade.

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