Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN #45, CAPTAIN AMERICA: SAM WILSON #1, JLA #4, SPIDER-GWEN #1

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

Batman #45
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

With the Devil Pigs and Mister Bloom running roughshod over Gotham, Jim Gordon already has a full plate as the all-new Batman. But is his career as the latest Dark Knight over before it could begin? If Gordon thought street criminals were deadly, he's never had to deal with the ruthlessness of government bureaucracy.

In the hands of other creators, Batman #45 could have easily been a slog, but thanks to some nimble plotting by Scott Snyder - and a healthy dose of kick-ass artwork thanks to Greg Capullo - this issue feels like an interesting swerve in the story of an already unpredictable character.

While new costumes and legacy heroes have long been a part of DC Comics' DNA, Snyder and Capullo are doing something altogether different with Jim Gordon. This isn't a matter of a new character exploring the already-established world of a veteran hero, but instead, this is a brand-new world, not just with brand-new villains, but with brand-new ways of doing things. In particular, Snyder has a great bit in here by establishing a different take on the Dynamic Duo, with Jim having a team-up with his own remote-controlled robotic armor. It's BatCop and Rookie, as Jim affectionately names his suit, and as Snyder teases later in the book, ther might be some new players to join Jim Gordon on his war on crime.

But will that war be cut short? The second half of this book is far more chatty than the action-packed firefight of the first half, but it's arguably even more compelling. As a deputized member of the G.C.P.D., Jim Gordon is vulnerable to politics in a way that the ultra-privileged Bruce Wayne never was, and having Jim be called out by the powers-that-be is a nice twist on Snyder's part. (It also pays off big time with an explosion of action, as Jim winds up following in Bruce's footsteps, and taking steps outside of the law that ultimately serve the greater good.)

But through it all, this book wouldn't be nearly as palatable without Greg Capullo's artwork. Capullo has a lot of talents as an artist, from his moody shadows to the surprising expressiveness of his characters. But if there's anything that Capullo does better than most of his peers, it's making a character look like they got the ever-loving crap kicked out of them. watching a sizzling, smoking Jim Gordon fight to stay standing adds stakes to this new Batman's story, in a way that the typically all-powerful Bruce Wayne didn't always command. It also makes the fight sequences look superb, as the Devil Pigs spit blood and fly through the air like ragdolls, and in particular, there's one splash page that doesn't need any sound effects to make its point. FCO Plascencia's colorwork is occasionally a bit garish, particularly during the opening fight sequence, but after he gets the hot colors out of his system, the second half of the book looks much more naturalistic and moody.

Granted, this isn't a perfect comic by any means - whenever Jim Gordon isn't on the page, the story does slow down dramatically, as the amnesiac Bruce Wayne feels a bit too maudlin to command our attention, while the homicidal Mister Bloom's murderous rampage doesn't quite feel creepy enough to really grab us, even with the show-stopping final scene. But ultimately, that's not why we're reading this book - most people aren't eagerly awaiting Bruce Wayne's return, as much as they want to see if Jim Gordon can live up to his potential with his brand-new suit, his brand-new team, and his brand-new way of doing things. And as Jim Gordon has learned, you can't beat City Hall - but it's surprisingly fun watching City Hall beat him.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Captain America: Sam Wilson #1
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Daniel Acuna
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Sam Wilson’s tenure as Captain America has been an interesting one, but it’s lacked a truly defining story. Post-Secret Wars, however, it seems like we might finally be getting one. With Captain America: Sam Wilson, Nick Spencer differentiates Sam from Steve Rogers by tweaking the concept of his title character and acknowledging that new direction from the outset - and as a result, he turns in one of his strongest Marvel scripts to date. By divorcing Captain America from organizational oversight (be it S.H.I.E.L.D., the U.S. government or something else), Spencer is able to explore the idea of Captain America as a counterculture symbol rather than a nationalist one.

There are implications to having a black Captain America. When the change was announced, opponents cut Marvel down for giving in to some liberal cry for diversity. Sam didn’t deserve the shield, they said. But in light of current events, who could embody the ideals of Captain America better? Despite his star-spangled outfit, Cap’s never had the “Truth, Justice and American Way” ethos that fuels many Superman stories. Instead, the lines Cap has drawn are simple. There is right and there is wrong. There is good and there is evil. His mission transcended politics, and even on some level, national identity. Steve Rogers turned in the Captain America name when it didn’t suit him any longer, becoming the Nomad and proving the fight for good was more important than wrapping oneself in the flag. This is Sam Wilson’s Nomad moment. But he’s going about it a little differently. Instead of taking himself out from behind the flag, he’s taking it back as a symbol for good - and obviously, that’s going to piss a lot of people off.

Sam Wilson is an incredible everyman, and by making Captain America a DIY operation, it allows him to remain true to his street-level crime-fighting roots and give power back to people who feel like they have none. Spencer’s approach is nuanced and intentional. He knows that pitting Captain America against the forces of systemic racism might be a hard sell for some readers. (Superhero comic books generally require something to be punched, and it’s hard to punch the state of a nation.) So he pulls back a little bit. He shows how Sam’s decisions have impacted the people around him. He reminds us that Sam Wilson is a human beings with friends and family. Sam Wilson isn’t a part of the Greatest Generation like Steve Rogers, but his altruism is innate. Spencer sets the stage for what’s to come for Wilson, and it’s a narrative decision that makes so much sense. This is a new Captain America, similar to the old Captain America but trying to be something even bigger and better.

Yet this comic book doesn’t always fire on all cylinders. You won’t find me on this side of the fence often, but Daniel Acuna really misses the mark in this issue. An extremely talented artist, Acuna’s work is excellent at capturing action and making heroes seem larger-than-life. But this isn’t one of those stories, making Acuna’s usually stellar style feel like less than a good fit. There are panels where characters lack all facial expression even though they’re in mid-conversation. As adept as Acuna is at the big moments, he can’t deliver on the small ones, with the story losing a bit of its emotional impact in the process. This is a story about an icon, but it’s not very big on iconography, which is really one of Acuna’s strong suits. I have to imagine that as the story progresses, we’ll see the reasons why Acuna was chosen for this project besides being a superstar artist generally deserving of an A-list title.

This is a bold, new era for Captain America, one that is already boiling over with tension. Sam Wilson is an unpopular man in the Marvel Universe, because he’s trying to fix something that you can’t necessarily fix with punching and catchphrases. Nick Spencer’s star is definitely rising at Marvel lately, after a few missteps early in his tenure. He really hit his stride with a comedic turn in Superior Foes of Spider-Man, but he’s shooting for something much larger here. And hopefully, as the story gets bigger, Acuna’s artwork will settle in and help shed light on what looks to be an emotional arc. Welcome to the court of public opinion, Mr. Wilson. Hope you survive the experience.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League of America #4
Written by Bryan Hitch
Art by Bryan Hitch, Daniel Henriques and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Rao is among us. Green Lantern is lost in time. Mind-control is running rampant. And a secret lies in Superman's DNA.

Things might be looking bad for the Justice League of America - but Bryan Hitch also has them exactly where you'd want them. This series is not only expertly drawn by the one-time artist of The Ultimates, but it's also expertly written, showing off a team of superheroes as the walls start to close in. While sticklers will likely cry foul at Hitch's tight focus on just a handful of Leaguers - indeed, Wonder Woman and Aquaman barely appear outside of the powerful cover image - there's still plenty to like about this series.

Just like The Ultimates before it, Justice League of America's greatest strength has to be Bryan Hitch's ultra-realistic artwork, which grounds the League and makes them feel more powerful than they've ever been. Hitch is the kind of artist who you just want to see his take on as many characters as possible - in particular, his design on Superman is about as fantastic as the character has ever looked since his "New 52" redesign. But Hitch has really grown as a storyteller, particularly the way he has characters converse - Superman and Cyborg, for example, have a great silent beat as Victor tells Clark he's working on a secret project for Batman. Clark's discomfort is palpable, but he knows Bruce ultimately means well, even if he's the eternal pessimist. It's a small moment, but it shows that Hitch understands the team's dynamics.

Four issues in, Hitch also finally starts to turn the screws, with Rao's slow game of domination finally starting to take effect. There's a particularly chilling scene with a young girl fighting with her mind-controlled parents, and seeing Rao's determined face at the end of the book - "It would have been so much easier if you'd just believed" - makes him seem like a scarily powerful villain. With all this drama going on, you'd be forgiven if you didn't realize that there's really only one action bit in the entire book, a quick fight sequence involving Batman, two followers of Rao, and an MRI machine. Instead, Hitch's gift is to fully realize the characters and their environments, giving every panel a nice sense of weight.

Like I said earlier, there are a few things that might rile up some readers - in this issue, really the only people who get any screen time are Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and Cyborg, with Aquaman getting exactly one panel (and Wonder Woman not even making an appearance, despite being on the cover). Pacing-wise, there is plenty of grounds for complaints, as we're four issues in and have barely scratched the surface of what dangers Rao is capable of, let alone including many of the absent Leaguers into the battle. But ultimately, Hitch seems to get the characters and their personalities, with his dialogue coming off as surprisingly polished for someone who's made the transition from artist to writer. Between this series and Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok's Justice League, you couldn't have picked a better time to be a fan of DC's greatest heroes.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Spider-Gwen #1
Written by Jason Latour
Art by Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The breakout star of Spider-Verse is back! But unfortunately, all we’re getting is more of the same. The mass appeal of Spider-Gwen can’t be denied, but the book already seems to be running out of steam. Providing readers with an alternate take on the Spider-Man mythos is a concept that is ripe for constant and varied reinvention, but Spider-Gwen might be a victim of its own success. This issue opts to play it safe rather than push the character forward, resulting in a retread that might easily get new readers aboard but holds little of interest for longtime fans. Jason Latour’s writing is simple and straightforward, and Robbi Rodriguez’ linework is still playful and energetic, but this story already feels like a retread.

Getting readers caught up is a double-edged sword. If you don’t do it, you risk losing people by introducing new ideas that reference old plot points. But if you do choose to, you run the risk of putting out an issue that feels wholly stale. LaTour is firmly in the latter camp with this issue. There’s one big reveal, but not entirely shocking given how little we know about this world, but the rest of the issue spins its wheels in an attempt to make sure that readers are aware of how some of the happenings in this issue are relevant to what’s happened before. Essentially, we get a bunch of recap (through overly expositional dialogue - ugh - and actual flashback scenes) that does little to really engage readers. There is nothing menacing about Latour’s villain set-up, and even his character work with Gwen and her dad has lost a bit of its charm. Been there, done that, bought metric tons of Spider-Gwen merch. I was hoping for something new here.

Robbi Rodriquez’s art is plenty energetic and fun. He keeps his panel layouts simple, but uses all the space within the gutters really well. At times, the shot selection has more in common with film and TV than it does with most other comic books. Rodriguez displays an incredible understanding of the visual language of a Spider-book, making sure that Gwen almost seems to bounce off the page when she’s in costume. And Rico Renzi’s coloring is deserving of a mention as well. The flashbacks are especially pretty as Renzi overlays them with a hazy color palette that washes the pages as a means of differentiating them.

This isn’t necessarily a bad outing by this creative team, but after their dynamic debut, this #1 can’t help by feel a little light. It feels too early to be rehashing old storylines already. Considering how long Spider-Gwen has lasted, we'll hopefully get to see more of her world and the other characters that inhabit it. Latour and Rodriguez are taking their time building the world and there’s nothing wrong with that but there’s nothing in this issue to really entice anyone to read it. I mentioned a reveal at the end and it’s kind of cool but it feels inorganic and tacked on. Here’s hoping that Spider-Gwen can swing back to its previous level of quality next month.

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