Best Shots Reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE #44, CAPTAIN AMERICA: WHITE #2, BATMAN ANNUAL #4, SUPERMAN #44

DC September 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #44
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

In today's increasingly synergized comics environment, the "event" comic book is the easiest book to cash in on and the hardest book to make actually good. Ever since the days of Marvel's first Secret Wars, it's almost feels like a law of diminishing returns: who cares if you write the book well, as long as it has all your favorite characters in the same place?

Thank goodness Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok are here to show us all how it's done.

For the past nine issues, Johns and Fabok's Justice League has been about as good as this title has been in at least a decade, after the pedigree of Grant Morrison's stratospheric JLA was blunted by revamp after revamp. Yet with Johns' effortless grasp of the League's characterization - not to mention Jason Fabok channeling the best of Jim Lee, Ivan Reis and David Finch with his blockbuster artwork - Justice League shows that readers can have it all, and that we can have a truly fantastic event book month-in and month-out.

With the fourth part of "The Darkseid War," Johns has built up the stakes to a fever pitch, as we see from Fabok's explosive double-page spread of Darkseid exchanging blows with the one figure in the DC universe powerful enough to give even him pause: the Anti-Monitor. Drowned out in Brad Anderson's colors, Fabok shows us just how big this conflict is for the DCU, with Parademons and Justice Leaguers flying from the shockwaves, with Wonder Woman standing resolute against the impact. Given the divine elements of this storyline, it's perhaps not surprising that Johns has cast some much-deserved spotlight on Diana, who throws herself in the fray despite being easily the smallest warrior on the battlefield.

Yet while Diana may be the Justice League's Goddess of War, she's far from the only deity on the playing field. Johns has made a Metron-possessed Batman a snide forbearer of things to come, but he ups the ante here with some major status quo changes for other members of the DCU. A scene featuring a corrupted Superman staring down Lex Luthor is just a striking scene, as Clark tells his archfoe: "You've only come close before for one reason. I held back." Additionally, another Leaguer's transcendence into the New God pantheon is a no-brainer that Johns knocks out of the park, and even new recruits like Power Ring finally get their moment to shine. While Justice League has often struggled to fit in its sprawling cast, you can't deny that Johns knows exactly where to push these characters once he's gotten around to them.

If there's anything that holds Justice League #44 back, it's that with four separate sides in this growing war - the League, Darkseid, the Anti-Monitor, and the wild card of Grail's Amazonian mother, Myrina - it can be difficult for new readers to jump on board. Additionally, like I eluded to before, Johns has a tough time giving the Leaguers things to do, with Cyborg, Captain Marvel and Mister Miracle barely appearing as background characters. With so many villains, you can't help but feel a little bit of concern that Johns might slip back towards some of the more villain-centric storytelling that made Forever Evil feel like a drag. Fabok, meanwhile, does occasionally slip up when it comes to the designs of his female characters, with Diana and Myrina in particular looking almost identical.

But these are minor hiccups - and when you're dealing with an honest-to-goodness event, minor hiccups are more than forgivable. Johns and Fabok have proven that you don't need to sacrifice quality just for the sake of high concept. This is the kind of summer blockbuster that fans wait years to see, and it's so fantastic that we get to check in month after month. Things may look bad for the Justice League, but for this reader, this series has begun to feel like a new Golden Age for DC's finest characters.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Captain America: White #2
Written by Jeph Loeb
Art by Tim Sale and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Richard Starkings
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Second issues are often a pitfall for many comics creators - but who has a sophomore slump when you have the Super-Soldier Serum coursing through your veins?

While Jeph Loeb has largely stepped away from the monthly comic book game in favor of spearheading Marvel's television efforts, he and Tim Sale's second installment of Captain America: White show that this legendary creative team hasn't lost its spark. While an abrupt resolution ultimately causes this book to stumble on the dismount, Loeb and Sale deliver a beautiful and surprisingly heartwarming story across enemy lines.

Sale's very first page, featuring an unconscious Cap sinking in the ocean, is a powerful way to start the issue. There's a sinister sense of peace in the embyronic pose Steve is in as he sinks into the darkness - it's no coincidence that Loeb is evoking Cap's time in the ice, and just how easy it would be to sleep in these perilous waters. As Sale transitions from Cap's predicament to Bucky and the Howling Commandos swimming for dear life after the wreckage of their plane, you get a great sense not just of his character designs, but of how he paces each scene - even with a double-page spread as simple as these characters bobbing in the ocean shows that Sale has forgotten more about layouts than many current comics professionals will ever learn. Dave Stewart's painterly colors also click in this issue - indeed, it's the roaring flames in the background against the cool green water that give much of this opening sequence its energy.

With much of this issue, Loeb gives the Cap-Bucky dynamic some welcome emotional energy, as Bucky winds up having to make a critical choice: Ditch Cap's shield beneath the waves, or let his drowning partner sink with it. It's a smart concept that Loeb mines throughout this issue - Cap has always been synonymous with his mighty shield, so what happens when this living legend is without his most potent symbol? And can Cap's paternal instinct for Bucky overcome this huge handicap? With one scene, Loeb has actually made Bucky a far more sympathetic character than even his run with Dick Grayson in Batman: Dark Victory, as Bucky struggles with uncertainty and guilt. Watching Cap give Bucky the benefit of the doubt - being the bigger person and recognizing his partner's vulnerability - gives Steve a likability that has long eluded him.

That said, with this awesome premise laid out, it's unfortunate that Loeb doesn't commit to it fully - by the end of the issue, Cap's shield is back in his possession, and the means of its return is about as deus ex machina as it gets. But honestly, I have less of a problem with the method of Loeb's resolution and more of its placement within the story; clearly Loeb should be able to tell whatever story he wants, but not only is he ditching a perfectly good premise, but he's still keeping readers in the dark about this series' direction two issues in. Additionally, there's the occasional creakiness in execution with this series; Steve's character does feel a bit one-dimensional at times, which is surprising given Loeb's well-defined run on Superman, while Sale's faces occasionally will get a little distended with their details.

Ultimately, I'm not sure where Captain America: White is headed as a series, but as far as chapters go, this is definitely a strong installment. By stripping Cap of his most powerful weapon, Loeb has shown us what kind of man Steve Rogers really is, and it's that kind of sterling character beats that will make lifelong fans. While the last issue struggled a bit with its large cast and shifting time periods, Loeb and Sale bring a renewed focus to Captain America: White #2, making this a singular work amongst Marvel's offerings this week.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman Annual #4
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Roge Antonio and Dave McCraig
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The question of whether it is possible to have Batman without Bruce Wayne has been pondered more than once in the long history of the character, with several stand-ins taking up the mantle during Wayne’s absence or injury. While that question is still being pondered in the monthly title with Jim Gordon in the mask of the hero, Batman Annual #4 continues the theme of the recent issues, flipping the page to ask if it is possible to have Bruce Wayne without Batman.

Picking up the threads from Scott Snyder’s ongoing series, regular collaborator James Tynion IV returns Bruce Wayne to his ancestral manor, where there are figurative and literal figures still haunting his past. Annuals tend to be standalone affairs, and while this one is a mostly self-contained story, you’ll need to know that Bruce Wayne has lost his memory, Alfred is missing a hand, and Wayne Manor was turned over to the city to use as the new Arkham Asylum for a time. Of course, Bruce has no memory of this, and as he regains control of the manor, he must deal with the aftermath of a life he doesn’t remember.

In a recent issue of Batman, Alfred commented that the Bruce Wayne that now inhabits the body of the former Dark Knight is the purest one to date. Devoid of the pain and suffering that the violent death of one’s parents and a lifetime of vigilantism leaves you with, he is literally a different person, the only Bruce Wayne untouched by tragedy. Yet Tynion is interested in the theme of consequences, and even if Bruce can’t remember or has yet to be informed of his time as the Batman, the Riddler, Clayface, and Mr. Freeze are determined to make him pay for that legacy. They see Bruce Wayne’s assistance of the Batman as a partial cause of their personal scars, and seek to use him as a means of retribution against a figure who doesn’t exist anymore. “This is your greatest legacy,” accuses Riddler. “The legacy of your madness.”

Visually distinct from Greg Capullo’s typical style, Roge Antonio’s art is hewn from something darker. Almost perpetually shrouded in shadow thanks to Dave McCraig’s darker palette, the disconnect that Bruce Wayne feels is mirrored in the art. Wayne Manor becomes a house of horrors in his hands, turning what was once familiar into a nightmare. Antonio’s centerpiece of the three villains laying in wait for Wayne is frame-worthy, and the use of light gives the whole thing a neo-noir aesthetic.

While there is some action, particularly in the back half of the issue, this is a mostly character-based psychological drama, and a welcome one at that. Without actually featuring Batman in or out of costume, Tynion gives us some answers around the fine line between heroism and madness. As Bruce explains “what crazy is” to the Riddler, he sums up exactly what separates any version of Bruce Wayne from a villain, and exactly what kind of stuff he is made of at his core.

Credit: DC Comics

Superman #44
Written by Gene Luen Yang
Art by John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson, Dean White and Leonardo Olea
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 1 out of 10

Featuring a horde of supervillains and a hostage situation at The Daily Planet, the finale to Gene Luen Yang’s first Superman story is a a hodge-podge of poor execution, bad characterization and woeful plot decisions. With a story that feels rushed and seemingly thrown together, Yang asks a lot of the reader to suspend disbelief over and over again in order to get through the story, while John Romita Jr.’s character renderings and action sequences feel completely stale. By the end it’s clear that rather than use a “name” writer to push the Man of Steel to new heights, DC only tasked Yang with limping Clark into a new status quo, and everyone involved is worse for it.

John Romita Jr. can’t shoulder the blame for the poor writing, but this isn’t his best outing. Page layouts are consistently reused to less and less effect. While that does make the book easier to read, it isn’t exactly exciting and certain layouts aren’t effective for every scene. Romita’s action sequences take a hit because they forces into panels that don’t allow him to create the best possible angle to help the reader understand what’s going on. As such, the fight scenes feel static and lifeless. There’s a lot of posing and the characters are reacting like something is happening but we aren’t quite sure what it is unless Romita pulls “the camera” back and shows a clear punch or tackle. Romita doesn’t even consistently render Clark throughout the book, showing our hero aging on a ten year sliding scale throughout the book with little regard.

Yang can’t help the release schedule that’s robbed his story of any stakes, but the problems in this issue go beyond that. From Action Comics to Superman/Wonder Woman, we’ve seen multiple SuperClark stories at this point, and almost all of them have done a good job of relating Clark’s struggle with wanting to help people but not wanting anyone to get hurt. Yang puts that idea front and center but it’s distractingly over-the-top, and Clark looks like a buffoon for not assuming that someone might find out his identity at some point. Yang has Clark try and punch his way out of his problems and it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t help that Yang’s choice of villains is dubious, seemingly chosen at random. A revamped Royal Flush Gang has no bite. Livewire, Killer Croc and the rest are merely punching bags. The one adversary in the narrative who has a direct connection to Clark (a gun-toting former Daily Planet coworker) isn’t given the room in the narrative to give the book any sort of emotional weight and Clark doesn’t react with any compassion to his plight. Yang’s big solution from Clark is to have him run away and make a public threat to all of his enemies. It’s poorly thought-out, and a frankly insulting ending to any readers who have stuck with the book this long.

I’d like to think that it’s reasonable for a superhero, especially one dependent on having a secret identity, to have a contingency plan in case their identity is ever found out. We’re talking about a world where people can fly, time travel is relatively normal and there are frequent incursions from outer space. But common sense was seemingly sacrificed in an exchange for the fantastic in Gene Luen Yang’s Superman, which fails because it betrays the intelligence of its characters and its readers. Most readers are savvy enough to understand that they’ll have to suspend disbelief for 20 pages in order to have some fun. But when a story can only exist because of the sheer stupidity of the characters involved, a creative team is asking its readers to willfully ignore poor execution and exhibiting a clear misunderstanding of what makes these characters work.

Yang’s story buckles under the weight of its own importance. In trying to kickstart a new era for Superman, he’s not able to deliver a character-defining piece of work. There is no twist. There are very few turns. This was a story that always had a very clear ending but the ride didn’t have to be this boring. Yang and Romita have proven themselves to be talented storytellers in their own right but to let a pillar of your publishing line be so grossly misused clearly falls on the editors, Andrew Marino and Eddie Berganza. This story would have worked for various B- or C-list heroes with much less to lose than Superman and far fewer means to avoid a situation like this one. It’s a shame, but with Howard Porter joining the title next month, there’s one silver lining: things can only go up from here.

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