Best Shots Reviews: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1, BATMAN & ROBIN ETERNAL #1, AXCEND #1, More

DC Comics October 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Amazing Spider-Man #1
Written by Dan Slott
Art by Giuseppe Camuncoli, Cam Smith and Marte Gracia
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Otto Octavius might have been the Superior Spider-Man. And Spider-Verse might have brought great power and great responsibility across the Marvel multiverse. But with Secret Wars drawing to a close, Dan Slott has something new up his sleeve - something Amazing.

Don't call it a comeback - Peter Parker's been here for years. Instead, think of Amazing Spider-Man as an upgrade - it's bigger than "Big Time," a Superior Spider-Man 2.0. With Parker Industries widening Peter's purview to a global scale, Dan Slott has brought Spidey back with renewed vigor. If this first issue is any indication, the Friendly Neighborhood Webslinger's future looks brighter than ever.

If I had to boil down Dan Slott's high concept with this book to something simple, I'd say that Amazing Spider-Man might be better titled "Spider-Man Incorporated" - Peter Parker is taking the Tony Stark route of becoming a compassionate capitalist, putting his prodigious brains to good use by creating open access Internet devices as well as peacekeeping inventions for S.H.I.E.L.D.

This emphasis on technology has played a part in Slott's storytelling since he took over the title, but with Amazing Spider-Man #1, Slott has taken this to its logical extreme, with Parker Industries giving Spider-Man the opportunity to crack jokes in Mandarin while driving a gravity-defying Spider-Mobile on the streets of Shanghai. In Slott's hands, Spidey's adventures as fast-paced and kinetic, but his character moments are more on-point than ever - if you're a longtime fan of Peter Parker, you can't help but feel a lump in your throat when he creates something called the Uncle Ben Foundation. Peter Parker has been a character that many readers look at as a friend, and so it's difficult to not feel some sort of happiness to see Marvel's most put-upon superhero finally make succeed on both a personal and professional level.

This new setting also allows for some great new wrinkles to Spidey's supporting cast - particularly the introduction of the Prowler as Peter's public Spider-Man double. Spider-Man has had plenty of love interests and arch-frenemies over his storied history, but giving Peter Parker an honest-to-goodness buddy is a long overdue addition to the book. (Plus, given Hobie's history as both an inventor and a reluctant criminal, there is just so much storytelling potential.) Additionally, seeing Peter deal with corporate intrigue is a surprisingly effective hook, as he has to deal with supervillains crashing his events as well as his own employees trying to manipulate Parker Industries to their own ends.

And the artwork. Guiseppe Camuncoli is just firing on all cylinders, giving the opening chase with the Spider-Mobile such a wonderful sense of energy and speed. (Colorist Marte Gracia also does some great work with purples and blues, which pop nicely against Spider-Man's red costume and really shows how different the streets of Shanghai are to Spidey's native New York.) Camuncoli's layouts are on point as Spidey dives onto a speeding vehicle, and his sense of design - particularly the rage-filled mask of Leo - looks spectacular. In certain ways, Camuncoli's bulkier Spider-Man reminds me of John Romita Sr., but the fluid way he conveys motion reminds me a lot of Stefano Caselli. It's fantastic work.

Combined with a series of teasers for Marvel's other Spider-series - Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez's Spider-Woman is the best of the bunch, as Jessica Drew juggles pregnancy and crimefighting, while Stacey Lee and Paco Diaz really do some spectacular work for Silk and an Amazing Spider-Man epilogue - and you've got yourself a comic book I cannot recommend enough. Spider-Man is one of those characters that is so enduring that you can put him in any environment and still produce a fantastic story. Dan Slott, at his prime, is the best kind of storyteller to prove it. Spider-Man's friendly neighborhood has gone worldwide - and that's the kind of world I like living in.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman and Robin Eternal #1
Written by James Tynion IV and Scott Snyder
Art by Tony Daniel, Sandu Florea and Tomeu Morey
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Now this is how you kick off a weekly comic book.

With some spectacular artwork from Tony Daniel, James Tynion IV and Scott Snyder start off Batman and Robin Eternal right, as Batman's nearest and dearest have to band together in their mentor's absence to combat a secret threat from the past. Fans of the pre-reboot DCU especially will have a lot to like here, as Tynion and company explore the history of Bruce Wayne's Robins in a way that hasn't been done in years.

Considering how touch-and-go weekly comic books can be in terms of quality, it's a smart move on the part of editors Mark Doyle and Chris Conroy to start this series off with Tony Daniel, whose work looks cleaner and more engaging than I've seen him in years. Daniel really shows off the personalities of Bruce Wayne's sidekicks, from the sexy and debonair Dick Grayson to the snarky Tim Drake, to the dark, menacing Jason Todd.

And that's to this book's benefit - Batman was front and center in the original Batman Eternal, but here, Batman and Robin Eternal really is about Bruce's absence. Instead of drowning us with an overload of Bruce's dour personality, Tynion and Snyder play off the rich dynamic that these three "brothers" have with one another, like when Jason offers to sneak the 16-year-old Tim into a bar. It's very refreshing, and the idea of the prodigal son returning to help guide his wayward family is a nice premise.

But Tynion and Snyder also know how do fan-service, and with the return of Cassandra Cain, they're going to have readers going bananas. The way that Daniel portrays her preternatural combat skills is simple but effective, with tiny red circles showing her exactly where to strike. With this first issue, Cassandra is still a mystery, but a mystery that's able to beat the hell out of Dick Grayson - just like how Gambit beat up Wolverine to show how tough he was in the '90s, Tynion and Snyder are able to effectively use some of Grayson's charisma to make Cassandra look more badass than ever. Combine this with some particularly effective characterization of Harper Row and a great mystery involving the Scarecrow and a mysterious figure named "Mother," and you've got a lot of hook here.

Ultimately, weekly comics are still an unproven storytelling method, with even the best examples having some major issues with pacing or a schizophrenic visual or narrative tone. But it's hard not to feel excited when you see a book that looks and reads as good as Batman and Robin Eternal. If DC can keep the art looking this good - and if Tynion and Snyder can keep their momentum going without Batman to guide his flock of Robins - then this might be the weekly comic we've all been waiting for.

Credit: Shane Davis (Image Comics)

Axcend #1
Written by Shane Davis
Art by Shane Davis, Michelle Delecki and Morry Hollowell
Lettering by Patrick Brosseau
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

The trope of being trapped inside a computer game, or having your consciousness sucked inside it, has permeated so much of pop culture that it has almost become a genre unto itself. From films such as Tron and its sequels, anime (Digimon or Summer Wars) and multiple comic book series, it taps into the idea of being liberated from your own body and transcending physical existence. This often accompanies some tragedy that the user has suffered, making it pure escapist fantasy.

Shane Davis, who is no stranger to superhero comic books from his work at both DC Comics and Marvel over the last decade or so, takes this model to heart with Eric, a twin who has lost his brother in an as-yet-undisclosed event. Suddenly inside a video game, he finds himself just as bullied and beaten as he has been in the real world, although where the two realities bleed into each seems to be where Davis is headed.

Axcend feels like watching someone else play a video game for you with the sound down, making up their own dubbed dialogue and plot. The bookend pieces concerning Eric’s loss offer some threads that might be worthwhile pursuing, although they rapidly seem like the obligatory setup as Eric is sucked into the game. From this point forward, it’s chaos: a rapid-fire line-up of images and characters that make about as much sense to the reader as they must to poor Eric. Like an episode of Yu-Gi-Oh, where the majority of the dialogue is setting up exposition for the next card move, it’s a barrage of catchphrase and godawful lines like “I am grateful that you have shown me the great and ancient mystical art of sucking ass!” It’s not much better in the “real world” either, where subtext yields to direct explanations of what each character is thinking or feeling.

There are moments of great beauty in the art, including a stunning painted piece where Eric describes a recurring dream. These are also the most interesting plot threads as well, and it makes one yearn for a story that it just about Eric dealing with loss. Yet like the narrative, once the story steps inside the virtual reality, Davis feels like he is mired in a 1990s set of designs; a fusion of influence that might just be parody if the book didn’t take itself so seriously.

It is really difficult to make a judgment on a story based on the first issue alone, and Davis certainly has some worthy elements in play here. Yet Axcend fails to make a good first impression, pinging back and forth between ideas that are already well familiar to audiences. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with formula if you are doing it exceptionally well, but so far Axcend just doesn’t take it to the next level.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Dr. Strange #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Chris Bachalo
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

In the end, it doesn't really matter why Marvel is relaunching Dr. Strange. Be it part of the new post Secret Wars universe, or that we're do for a Dr. Strange movie teaser any day now. It's time to get our mystic and weird on within the realm of the Sorcerer Supreme. Sometimes it can be tricky finding the balance between drawing in and hooking new readers, without losing the fan that's been there since the good old days. Does Dr. Strange #1 do that? It does, and yet there is something off that is hard to put a finger on. Still, the set up is fun.

After a simple, yet wholly entertaining history recap, we dive right into what at first seems like a routine possession. At least as routine as one can be when fighting demons and snake women from an inter-dimensional realm. Jason Aaron also gives us a short and slightly humorous insight into Strange's personality, being his almost Tony Stark levels of womanizing. It's entertaining enough, but if you're a reader that's looking for something a little different from the cliched “I can charm anyone into making out with me," this can be a rough opening. However, once we're shown the ever expanding Marvel mystical universe as Strange unwinds with Doctor Voodoo, the Scarlet Witch, and Shaman, then we're getting into some fun banter and insight into this rarely visited corner of the world.

It's not a shock that Jason Aaron has a good voice for Strange and his setting. Indeed, some of the books best moments are when Strange is just walking down the streets of New York. Watching the sorcerer take for granted what even a long-standing members of the Avengers find odd is a good little twist. But it's the almost by the numbers reveal of the new bad guy that stops the book from truly standing out, from a pure narrative. It's not bad, not at all, but it's hard to shake the feeling that Aaron is just pulling his story from Intro Arc 101. Still, he does so in an entertaining fashion that will really hold new readers, even if us Dr. Strange veterans are hoping for a twist later in this arc.

Chris Bachalo on pencils and colors are what really make this comic pop. His character designs are both familiar and weird. The mystic style of the comic book allows for an artist to really play with layout and panels, something that Bachalo wholly embraces. The initial battle between Strange and the dimensional beasts is truly a blast to read. With the art pulling the reader from one panel to the next. In fact, if you're a reader that lets the dialog draw your eyes, you might find yourself getting lost now and then. Instead, simply following the almost chaotic flow of the actions pulls you into a far more fulfilling read. But even when the scene slows down to simple street scenes, Bachalo draws a setting that suggests that even during down times, Strange's world is never at ease. It's a constant battle between supernatural forces for the souls of those around them. It's a great device that stops Stephen from becoming Iron Man with spells. And it is most welcome.

It's strange to have concern about a comic book that, upon initial reading, is fast and fun. Aaron writes a good debut, but it isn't something we really haven't seen before. But what he does do, he does quite well and that more than makes up for the less than original plot. It's Bachalo's visuals that makes this book a required reading. Dr. Strange #1 breaks many of the conventional superhero rules when it comes to design and flow. If you're looking to lock new readers into mystical Marvel, it's a good start, and maybe that's enough for now.

Credit: DC Comics

Green Arrow #45
Written by Benjamin Percy
Art by Patrick Zircher, Federico Dallachio and Gaeb Eltaeb
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Green Arrow has struggled to find an identity since the 2011 reboot, bouncing from one creator to the next. With the possible exception of Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s experimental and artistically-driven arcs, Green Arrow has been caught in a tug-of-war between appeasing fans of both the comic book and television mediums. As Arrow characters such as Felicity Smoak and John Diggle make their way into the comic books, the book once again lost its way. So it was pleasing to see Benjamin Percy initially take a back-to-basics approach, inspired by Mike Grell’s Seattle and the urban hunter. Unfortunately, as Percy’s second arc moves forward, the bowstring loses some of its tension and results in more than a few missed targets.

Following a timely ‘rescue’ by Tarantula, "The Bone Hunters" arc takes the titular hero and his new partner on the road in search of Oliver’s dog, George. Which might be the strangest step for this book to date, which is saying something when previous adventures involved group sex with triplets and adding dead Chinese grandparents to the rogue gallery. This is precisely the problem with the book right now, and it’s one of finding a suitable motivation. All the horror and supernatural trappings in the world can’t escape that this is about a missing dog. While pet lover’s and people with human hearts beating in their chest might sympathize, it’s not necessarily the path a hero in sense of narrative direction could be taking.

Percy seems determined to keep a costumed Green Arrow as far as possible away from his own title, getting as far as wearing half a suit for a few pages this time out. What began as a curious exploration as Oliver Queen as a person outside the hood has now become a willful wandering, a book intent on being lost without any particular purpose. After an initial action sequence, the book is quite literally two people in a car talking, with a manufactured antagonism that reads like the precursor to an unlikely coupling. The Skeletons make for an interesting group of antagonists, and it all finally ties back around to the 8-page preview that was released at the end of Convergence, but the growing darkness and a Mayan horror plot is just one tonal shift too many for this beleaguered hero. The sum of the parts is simply a mess.

Patrick Zircher’s art continues to be the highlight of the title, sharing an artist credit this month with Federico Dallachio. Zircher’s partnership on this book with colorist Gaeb Eltaeb has been a fruitful one, the latter’s shadows and lived-in elements added to rooftops creating the right tone for Percy’s growing darkness. This works especially well during the pages leading up to a grim discovery in the final pages, and is a stark contrast with the desert sunshine that Seattle resident Ollie has a hard team dealing with.

From his earliest days in the pages of More Fun Comics, World’s Finest and Adventure Comics, Green Arrow has always been something of a pastiche: part Batman, partly Robin Hood, and partly inspired by the Western mythos. So it’s interesting to see the Green Arrow of the 21st century still struggling with this identity crisis. Percy has some interesting ideas, and the notion of Green Arrow as a horror title is an intriguing one. Yet the problem lies ultimately in the execution, one where multitude of ideas could benefit from being pared back into a singular focus.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Contest of Champions #1
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Paco Medina, Juan Vlasco, David Curiel, Thomas Labourot and Guru-eFX
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The All-New, All-Different Marvel universe has arrived, but there’s still a secret war being waged in Contest of Champions #1. The new series by Al Ewing and Paco Medina utilizes strong characterization in order to tell its story, preferring to keep details of the greater conflict hidden. This decision proves to be an impactful one, but not necessarily in positive ways.

Contest of Champions #1 is split into two stories, the primary tale being titled “The Life I’ve Left Behind Me.” It is here that Ewing and Medina introduce Nigel Higgens, the former British Punisher. Ewing brings to Contest of Champions the same penchant for characterization that bolstered Mighty Avengers and Loki: Agent of Asgard. Nigel Higgins makes for an engaging protagonist, and the everyman quality he possesses makes him a great character to lead readers into the premise of the series. When Nigel is teleported into a jungle of dinosaurs, it becomes fun to watch his confusion transform into an assertive quest for survival.

When the action heats up, the issue lends itself to the talents of artist Paco Medina, whose flowing lines create a great sense of motion. The story calls for Medina to illustrate several familiar faces from the Marvel universe and Medina is able to imbue them each with their own physicality. From Iron Man’s angular new suit to the lithe physique of Gamora, each of these characters is depicted in a way that conveys a unique style of movement in combat, and that keeps the momentum of the issue flowing. Inker Juan Vlasco draws out some of the more detailed linework in Medina’s art and allows the characters to pop from the background. Combined with the dynamic colors by David Curiel, and Contest of Champions #1 takes on a lively feel that is fitting for an action book.

One of the primary issues plaguing Contest of Champions #1 is the lack of setting up the rules of the game itself. There’s something to be said for building a sense of mystery, but it’s hard to buy into the stakes of a contest without the context of how the game works. Ewing’s characterization offsets some of this, but the issue may have been better served using the space of the back-up story to establish the premise a little more clearly. As it stands, the main section of Contest of Champions #1 is a visual delight anchored by strong characterization, but the story is a bit undefined.

The back-up tale, “L’avenir, C’est Moi” is also scripted by Ewing, joined by Thomas Labourot and Guru-eFX. It chronicles the back-story of a new hero named Guillotine. Ewing’s script does a good job of setting up Guillotine’s origin, but the eight-page story doesn’t have room to really delve into the current Guillotine’s personality. “L’avenir, C’est Moi” is expository in nature, and that undercuts some of the talents of Thomas Labourot, whose looser pencils and delicate inks will be better served once the story is allowed to become more action-oriented. Guru-eFX’s color work really keeps the story lively, and the deep reds of Guillotine’s costume pop nicely against the stormy backgrounds.

Ultimately, Contest of Champions #1 is a decent debut for the "All-New, All-Different Marvel" initiative. Readers may find the premise a little too familiar in the wake of Secret Wars but Ewing’s penchant for strong characterization keeps the story engaging. The art in both stories is effective, with Paco Medina getting to show off his skill in action. Thomas Labourot gets the short end of the stick, with an underwhelming back-up. In a competitive market, Contest of Champions will need to offer more in the way of narrative to be successful.

Credit: DC Comics

Detective Comics #45
Written by Peter Tomasi
Art by Marcio Takara and Chris Sotomayor
Lettering by Wes Abbott
Published by DC Comics
Review by Vanessa Gabriel
‘Rama Rating: 4 out 10

There’s a new creative team in Gotham, and the new Batman is about to join forces with the Justice League. The transition is about as smooth as you might imagine going from Bruce Wayne as Batman to that Bat-mantled robot suit Jim Gordon is trying to wear. It’s very Lex Luthor, in a stiff <arine kind of way. But as opposed to exploring the vices and virtues of Gordon’s BatCop as a cog in the League, Detective Comics #45 stutters as a contrived sideshow of the fallout of Bruce Wayne’s memory loss.

There is an opportunity to forge new ground, but instead the issue opens in all-too familiar territory. In his study, Bruce mulls over childhood photos while Alfred provides commentary. It’s the kind of moment that should be retired from any version of Batman that is published henceforth. Visually, it’s a scene we’ve seen a hundred times, only instead of Bruce ruminating in the pain of loss, he remembers nothing and is glad he was loved. There’s no revelations of character, and poor Alfred is forced to speak in trite reminiscence of the Waynes. I wanted to roll my eyes for him.

That’s OK, I had plenty of eye-rolling all for myself once the members of the Justice league descended upon Wayne Manor to double-check, and make sure detective Bats is really, truly gone. We so needed to be reminded of Batman’s signature, artisan attention to detail that Captain Marvel explained the intrusion to Alfred by saying that the Justice League is stronger with Batman on their side and “in full-out detective mode.” It's not a great bit of dialogue, and it's unfortunately representative of a lot of this book.

Detective Comics #45 spends its time laboring in forced dialogue about Gotham’s recent past and long-established character canon. It’s all heavy-handed and unnecessary exposition, and a lot of wasted panel real estate. By the time we get to the “brand-new epic” featuring Jim Gordon, we’re half way through the issue. And if Jim Gordon is the Joe the Plumber of Batmans, they did an excellent job of making him as stereotypically one-sided and obnoxiously gruff as possible. His dialogue is as meat-headed as Superman looks.

Where Marcio Takara’s whimsical lines and youthful faces work nicely on Blue Beetle, Detective Comics needs a more severe tone. The quieter moments in the beginning of the issue work very nicely. As Diana subjects a strikingly Ben Affleck version of Bruce to the Lasso of Truth, the shadows and perspectives create intimacy and draw you into the story for a moment. Aesthetically, Takara seems to like Wonder Woman best. Her armor and movement are handled nicely throughout the issue. I can’t say the same for some of the other members of the League and Jim Gordon who all appear overly stiff at times.

That stiffness carries over into the narrative because the moment the issue shifts into high-gear, the visual story beats become abrupt, making difficult to know how we got from one scene to the next. Combined with Gordon’s mindless one-liners, Takara’s cartoony style only makes BatCop that much more unbelievable. It doesn’t help that Chris Sotomayor goes overboard with blues and grays, providing very little contrast, and trying too hard to feel like Gotham.

The lack of cohesion in narrative, art and dialogue make this feel like a filler issue biding its time to get to the actual story. If Jim Gordon’s robot version of Batman is a cop playing a hunch, then I am a seasoned comic reviewer playing my own kind of hunch. This is not interesting or entertaining. Detective Comics #45 makes me long for Bruce’s fractured soul and obsessive psyche as Batman. I have no doubt that we’ll find our way back to batarangs in the dark, but for now we’ll call this editorial limbo.

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