Best Shots Reviews: STAR WARS: SHATTERED EMPIRE #1, BATMAN #44, QUAKE #1, More

"Harley Quinn: Road Trip Special #1" preview
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Journey to Star Wars - The Force Awakens: Shattered Empire #1
Written by Greg Rucka
Art by Marco Checchetto and Andres Mossa
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Star Wars has been the gift that's kept on giving for Marvel Comics, with Star Wars, Darth Vader and Princess Leia buoying the House of Ideas' monthly sales far beyond that of its competition. But while those titles play in the spaces between Episodes IV and V, with the wordily titled Journey to Star Wars - The Force Awakens: Shattered Empire #1, Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto take the Star Wars universe one tiny, but beautifully rendered step forward.

Between John Cassaday, Stuart Immonen, Terry and Rachel Dodson, and Salvador Larocca, Marvel's Star Wars titles have been a magnet for A-list artists, but I think Marco Checchetto is going to make his career with Shattered Empire. Teaming up with Andres Mossa, Checchetto's characters are beautifully rendered, as his opening double-page splash drops us into Return of the Jedi's final climactic fight between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, as well as the Rebel Alliance fleet dogfighting outside the Emperor's Death Star. While some of Checchetto's panels featuring the vehicles can feel a little too tight, his character design for Lieutenant Shara Bey gives us a reason to care during the book's opening sequence.

But while Checchetto's artwork is as strong as it's ever been, writer Greg Rucka's pacing doesn't really give readers much to work with. Rucka has all the character voices down pat - I love the chatter between all the X-Wing pilots as they scramble to buy Han Solo and company some time - but when I say that this issue takes us beyond the confines of Return of the Jedi, it's about as incremental a jump ahead as humanly possible. Beyond the Ewok celebrations following the Death Star's destruction, we don't actually get too much face time with the heroes of the Rebellion - Han, Chewie and Lando make brief cameos, but ultimately, the last five pages featuring a Rebel raid on an Imperial base just feels a bit empty for such an important franchise book.

Instead, Rucka focuses most of this comic on Shara as she frets about whether or not she might see her husband, Sergeant Kes Dameron, following the carnage at the Death Star. Shara is an interesting new character, and fits in nicely with Rucka's track record of writing complex female leads. She's got a similar grit and sense of humor that Princess Leia did in the latter Star Wars films, and - perhaps most importantly - she likely has a big connection to Oscar Isaac's character, Poe Dameron, in the upcoming Star Wars film. But Rucka wisely doesn't make that the hinge of her worth, instead making Shara's reunion with her husband remind us that no matter how fun they were to watch, these Star Wars had plenty of human casualties.

Out of all the Star Wars books on the stands, Journey to Star Wars - The Force Awakens: Shattered Empire #1 is definitely one of the prettiest. It's also one of the most decompressed. Greg Rucka has a lot of expectations on his shoulders with this series, as readers are looking for something that feels exciting and adds to the Star Wars universe ahead. With two new characters introduced, here's hoping that the next issue will put the pedal to the metal, and show us what this franchise can really do.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #44
Written by Scott Snyder and Brian Azzarello
Art by Jock and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Scott Snyder’s bold change of direction post-Convergence was a shock to the system for readers of his mostly superb run on Batman. So this latest issue, a one-shot that takes us back to the period immediately following the “Zero Year,” acts as a kind of temporary patch for those missing the traditional Dark Knight. While it does remove us from some of the momentum of the ongoing storyline, as all things “Zero Year” seem to do, this nevertheless remains one of the more powerful stories in recent Bat-history.

Like the other post-event stories involving Harper Row, Scott Snyder and Brian Azzarello’s issue concentrates on the regular humans in Gotham, the ones that Batman’s existence invariably impacts on regardless of his intent. When a body turns up in a remote location, apparently having been dropped from a great height, Batman investigates why this would happen to an otherwise unremarkable bodega owner. It’s one of the first times in recent memory that the flagship title has concentrated on Batman as a detective, and it’s telling that the narrative had to be a flashback in order to restore this fundamental aspect to the Batman character.

The investigation surrounding the death borders on the Twilight Zone style of storytelling, where the simple and the fantastic are often one in the same. The street-level (and occasionally rooftop level) action is a welcome change from some of the recent high-concept outings, and Snyder’s base story has nice rounded edges, bringing seeds he plants in the first frame to fruition by the end, and taking the reader full circle in the process. Yet what distinguishes this issue from the rest of the run is when Azzarello’s touches come through, from the slightly distant narration to the genuine nature of the dialogue, regardless of whether it is the Penguin, street thugs, or misguided cops.

Jock brings his inimitable talents to bear on the art, and from the cover down to the final simple frame, it’s all jaw-droppingly good. Jock’s art has always been a looser style, a kind of expressionistic take on the superhero genre. Those loose inks dominate the natural fit he has with darker fare like Batman, with the titular character always in a half or full shadow, but there a huge amount of detail in his character expressions and incidental backgrounds. Here he also plays with different kinds of media, dropping in articles and text as background images. It culminates in a stunning two-page spread of Batman survey the city from up on high, a cacophony of fonts and newspaper print filling in those in-between spaces. The already restrained color artist Lee Loughridge pulls right back to black and white, with only the faintest hint of blue.

Make no mistake: Snyder’s current run with Jim Gordon in the role of the mechanical Batman is a superb shakeup of a familiar continuity. Yet as it touches on salient social issues, including police shootings of unarmed youths and disenfranchised quarters of society, this issue reminds us not just of why Snyder remains such a fan-favorite for the character, but what we have loved about the modern version of the Dark Knight for at least the last 30-plus years.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Quake #1
Written by Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon
Art by Daniel Warren Johnson and Jason Keith
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

S.H.I.E.L.D. has always occupied an interesting corner of the Marvel universe. Do you need a special ops/espionage task force in a world with Avengers and other super-powered beings? Is their existence extraneous? With Quake #1, Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon don’t seem to think so. In fact, at its best, they see S.H.I.E.L.D. as an integral part of the Avengers team dynamic, providing an ounce of humanity where it has maybe otherwise been scrubbed away. And the book has a lot of style, too. Daniel Warren Johnson brings a more indie comics edge to the script. The lines are bit rougher. There’s a strong emphasis on creating mood and fleshing out the themes of the script through the art but at the same time, Johnson delivers on the big Marvel-style action that readers have come to expect. The result is a book that comes together in a really big way and gives new readers a stellar reintroduction to a character who has seen her stock rise exponentially in recent years.

Rosenberg and Kindlon take us back in a time a bit to show us how Daisy Johnson found herself first called up to the big leagues and her first mission with the Avengers. In doing so, they give the character a great platform for more stories moving forward and an excellent starting point for readers of varying degrees of familiarity with the character. I don’t remember reading many one-shots that care equally about telling a good story and putting the character in a position to grow further upon its conclusion.

The Avengers are somewhat ancillary players here, allowing Daisy to take up most of the narrative but popping in when it serves to illuminate something about Daisy. She narrates us through the entire experience, relating to the reader that she doesn’t know where she fits in here. That’s a theme that definitely runs through Rosenberg and Kindlon’s work from their work on Black Mask Studios’ We Can Never Go Home to some of the chapters of their online work Menu. By using the Avengers as a framing device, we get to see how Daisy is a little bit of each of them but also where she differs and why they need her. Rosenberg and Kindlon’s character work is spot-on and truly the strongest part of the issue.

Daniel Warren Johnson’s work is a good fit. His character renderings are bit inconsistent when he takes different angles on the same page but that isn’t too distracting. Some of characters can look a little bit goofy (Captain America in particular) but I think that serves to undercut some of the tension. Daisy is really feeling anxious about the mission so seeing Cap’s dopey grin is probably a bit comforting. It also helps remind the reader that this isn’t meant to be an overly serious comic. Sure, there are stakes and some great moments of tension, but the issue isn’t meant to be gloom and doom.

Johnson really adapts to the needs of the script well and a lot of his stand out work comes with the Red Hulk. From Rulk’s moody introduction to his bombasticity on display in a big double-page action spread, Johnson really knows his way around the raging red giant and it shows. That’s not to say that he slacks with the other characters, though. Daisy’s face-off with Iron Man is a powerful, intense scene that showcases her fearlessness and provides a strong contrasting visual to show the character’s evolution over the course of the book. For his part, Jason Keith’s coloring hangs back, content to not compete too much with the dark shadows that envelop much of Johnson’s art. But when Keith picks his moments to provide a pop of color, he does so with aplomb and really enhances the looks of the book.

Quake #1 is a great reintroduction to a character that many readers may not be familiar with. Rosenberg and Kindlon display a deft understanding of Daisy Johnson and her role in the Marvel U without leaning heavily on the Avengers to give her importance. They also remain true to their roots, writing a book that features the same outsider themes of their previous work. Daniel Warren Johnson and Jason Keith’s contributions definitely help enhance the script, providing just enough of an edge balanced out with strong visual storytelling. As for Daisy Johnson, the writers have left her in a good spot. Maybe this is a sign of things to come for Daisy Johnson/Quake/Agent Skye (her TV counterpart), or maybe it’s not. Either way, this issue serves as a decent primer for the character and sheds some light on an important part of her history.

Credit: DC Comics

Harley Quinn: Road Trip Special #1
Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor
Art by Bret Blevins, Moritat, Flaviano Armentaro, Pasquale Qualano, Jed Dougherty and Paul Mounts
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Road trip! With Poison Ivy and Catwoman in tow, Palmiotti and Connor's Harley Quinn takes to the open road. Drawn by no less than five artists, Harley Quinn: Road Trip Special #1 is an uplifting and comedic tale, a sequential scatter-gun of artistic approaches, as well as a comic book that all too often succumbs to embarrassing levels of cheesecake and flat racy humor.

After the untimely passing of her beloved Uncle Lou, Harley Quinn must make the trip to Long Island to lay his ashes to rest alongside his wife's grave. This initial conceit soon gives way to hijinks, as the gruesome threesome run afoul of lame dog-themed supervillain Darkwolf as well as hallucinogenic beer. At her absolute core, Palmiotti and Connor's Harley Quinn is an endearing soul, an unashamedly teenage rebel who still treats her parents with respect. Harley's well-meaning goal and her solid friendship with Selena Kyle and Pamela Isley carry the reader through the bulk of the issue, even when Palmiotti, Connor and artist Bret Blevins seem to forget about their initial premise in favor of overt crassness.

Palmiotti and Connor constantly straddle the line between positive representation for women in comics and Zenescope-style cheesecake with a knowing wink. Harley, Pamela and Selena frequently hang about in their underwear, talking for entire pages at a time in lazy euphemisms. At worst, it's flat-out offensive to the reader, and at best it's just plain lazy.

Away from the cheesecake, there are a few fun character moments here; such as Harley's inner conflict when she's challenged to stay silent for 15 minutes, or when Palmiotti and Connor play on how purposefully grating her persona is (Darkwolf wins best one-liner here, with “Stop, please, your voice sounds like a smoke detector mated with a seagull!”). Palmiotti and Connor's take on Poison Ivy as a well-meaning but brash eco-warrior is especially inspired. She happily justifies covering an entire apartment block in vines to alleviate its environmental impact, leaving Batman to impotently state, “All true, but you don't own this building. Maybe this would be fine if the owner was consulted in advance.” Pretty weak, Bats.

Artistically, Bret Blevins takes up pencilling duties for the vast bulk of Harley Quinn: Road Trip Special #1's page-count. His strong, long-legged characters are saturated in the male gaze, which often ruins his characters' proportions. Elsewhere, Blevins relies on facial expression to carry Palmiotti and Connor's story, bringing big doses of character and dynamism to their script.

For Harley's beer-induced hallucination, Bret Blevins hands over the reins to Moritat. As reality slides into Harley Quinn's dream, Moritat's work slides into an Alice in Wonderland-nspired nightmare, with flowery but janky artwork that suits the surreal proceedings. Correct proportion is all but thrown to the wind here, and Moritat's characters transform into grotesque Blythe-like creatures with massive oval eyes, tiny noses and impossibly plump lips. It's a style that works well within the realm of the narrative, but an entire issue's worth of it would be pushing it.

Rounding out the army of artists are Flaviano Armentaro, Pasquale Qualano and Jed Dougherty, who contribute a few pages each. Jed Dougherty is the obvious weak link here, whose rough and malformed figures don't seem quite ready for prime time. Conversely, Armentaro's smooth and expressive illustrations make for the artistic highlight of the whole issue, while Qualano prefers a simpler but equally as animated line.

Bret Blevins, Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor have a knack for the comedic, but their work in Harley Quinn: Road Trip Special #1 sits uneasily between the past and the present. There are hints here and there that suggest that Palmiotti and Connor know better than to lower themselves to the level of a Marvel Swimsuit Special, but they frequently do so any way. The actual script underneath the skin is solid, and the friendship the three villains share is believable and endearing when you scrape away the barrage of lame sapphic euphemisms. However, it's 2015. We shouldn't have to scrape at all.

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