Best Shots Reviews: DARKSEID WAR - BATMAN #1, CHEWBACCA #2, ART OPS #1, More

Marvel Comics October 2015 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Francis Manapul (DC Comics)

Justice League: The Darkseid War: Batman #1
Written by Peter J. Tomasi
Art by Fernando Pasarin, Matt Ryan and Gabe Eltaeb
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The dichotomy between "gods" and mortals in the DC Universe has been an electrifying story point for decades and across multiple mediums. Skilled but otherwise regular humans Batman and Green Lantern have served as the conscience of the Justice League, making the difficult decisions or offering the dissenting opinions because it keeps the super powered team honest. Batman has long had contingency plans in the event of those super humans suddenly realizing that they are in fact godlike in their abilities, yet what happens when the Dark Knight suddenly becomes omnipotent and omniscient? Justice League: The Darkseid War: Batman #1 explores the notion of a Bat-god, and how terrifying a possibility that might be.

Spinning out of the events of the superb Justice League "Darkseid War" story arc, where the fate of the titular villain was recently sealed, Peter J. Tomasi explores Gotham under the protection of Batman as the God of Knowledge. Never leaving the Mobius Chair, Batman dispenses pre-justice to crooks who are yet to commit crimes. “An absolute Batman dealing absolute justice,” he explains to a concerned Alfred. Here we get a glimpse at the angst that has plagued Bruce Wayne since that fateful night in Crime Alley, continuing to fight a battle that he could never hope to actually win. Becoming the “perfect Batman” also exposes his human frailties, and how far his obsession drives his deeds beyond a sense for actual justice.

Marching to the beat of its own drum, and necessarily ignoring the recent developments in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman (as Geoff Johns has done to date), Tomasi continues to play with the theme of "gods and mortals" but substitutes Jim Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth for the typical Jiminy Crickets of the Justice League. Gordon sees right through the facade, offering that the chair comes from a place of violence and war, and Batman’s intent won’t overcome that. Alfred simply sees it as a curse. The most telling moment is Bruce’s attempt to change a fateful moment in his past, and unable to do so, seeks a form of twisted retribution instead. Given unlimited power, the Dark Knight gets a little darker.

Fernando Pasarin, who is perhaps best known for his work on Green Lantern Corps and a pre-Burnside Batgirl, employs a variety of looks on this issue. The combination of a Gotham in perpetual night with the God of Knowledge hovering in his chair above it all gives rise to a techo-future look that suits the Caped Crusader even more than the wonderful mecha designs in his primary book. Pasarin frequently has to take Batman out of town - way out of town - and the contrasts provide some levels of unexpected humor to the enigmatic gloom of the piece. At one point, the artist pays tribute to a variety of artists, from Brian Bolland to Doug Mahnke and the aforementioned Capullo, and it is a magnificent piece to go out on.

Justice League: The Darkseid War: Batman #1 is but a small vignette in a larger epic, and is to be continued in the Justice League run, yet it is also one that mostly works outside of the confines of that saga. It would be very easy to see this as another set of tie-ins to an overblown event, but instead this is a rare time where the opportunity is being taken to explore the impact a major twist has on the individual members of the League.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Chewbacca #2
Written by Gerry Duggan
Art by Phil Noto
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Of all the creators working on Marvel's prolific and high quality Star Wars lineup, no one has had less to work with than Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto, whose work on Chewbacca #1 struck a delicate balance between crime thriller and buddy comedy. Chewbacca #2 continues in much the same vein as the first, and even offers us a glimpse into the great walking carpet's inner psyche.

Gerry Duggan's straightforward script stresses Chewie's resourcefulness and strength, showing exactly us why his partner Han Solo considered him so indispensable in the original trilogy. Aside from Chewie's obvious place as a physical threat, Duggan tries to flesh him out by establishing a mild case of claustrophobia for everyone's favorite Wookie. An aversion to tight spaces would be difficult to avoid for a character as monolithic as Chewie, making for a credible fear that doesn't ever feel like it does a disservice to him. Duggan and Noto effortlessly slip in Chewbacca's discomfort in a five-panel page that tells us all we need to know without a single expository word.

Tight and focused reaction shots make up the bulk of Phil Noto's panel composition, framing his strong and communicative portraiture with simple backgrounds that draw the eye back towards the characters. Noto colors his own work with soft tones of blue and purple, lending an otherworldly effect that doesn't ever try for menacing or dreary. Noto's nuanced facial designs immediately distinguish each character with their own unique identities that convincingly react to the events of the issue; helping Duggan to hit all the emotional beats of his script.

Protagonist Zarro is the intrepid adventurer of the series, flying through the universe by the skin of her teeth. Much like everyone else in the issue, the bulk of Zarro's character development is achieved through her facial expressions; especially in the page where enthusiastic blood thirst turns to unease as she witnesses Chewbacca's full wrath unleashed upon her captors. Here, Duggan's script is effective precisely because it shows us the world through Zarro's eyes as she charges into battle and finds it a more brutal affair than she had imagined.

Fittingly, the primary antagonist Jaum is little more than a sketch, a single-minded and soulless villain with a colorful appearance who works well within the limited but perfectly formed scope of this issue. Equal parts mob boss and child slaver, Duggan's threat bears all the hallmarks of the archetypical villain, never attempting for even a moment to be anything more than a cardboard cut-out of a bad guy. Luckily, Star Wars lends itself well to unnuanced good versus evil. There's no grey area here; we're well within the realm of the action adventure cartoon as we watch Zarro and Chewbacca travel deep into Jaum's mines to save Zarro's people.

With Chewbacca #2, Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto have created a tonally faithful Star Wars tale filtered through the eyes of a child. Duggan and Noto have no time for shades of grey here, as writer and artist work in unison to deliver a bright and exciting moment of escapism with just enough character development to strengthen one of the least substantial characters of the Star Wars universe.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Sam Wilson: Captain America #2
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Daniel Acuna
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

We live in a polarized world. The happy medium isn't happy anymore, with Democratic and Republican commentators locking horns on the news and ordinary citizens losing friends over Facebook threads. There's a divide in the United States, and perhaps its no surprise that Sam Wilson: Captain America has fallen into it. But while the idea of Captain America becoming a partisan figure is a gutsy idea, Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuna's execution never really matches the potential of their premise.

Ultimately, if there's anything that really hampers this book, it's that Nick Spencer is trying to pack in too much, too fast - which, to be honest, is a sin I wish more writers were guilty of. But while Spencer has been known for jumping from scene to scene and time period to time period in his writing, he winds up not giving enough real estate to make any of his plotting really connect.

Having Sam Wilson take a stand against S.H.I.E.L.D. trying to collect pieces of the Cosmic Cube? Great premise, but Spencer barely does anything with it. How about Sam squaring off against Steve Rogers at the Mexican border, where the violent Minutemen fill-ins known as the Sons of the Serpent are attacking border crossers? It leads to a team-up that's over before it begins. By the time that Spencer introduces a shadowy Edward Snowden-esque type - a guy who Sam fights S.H.I.E.L.D. for, sight unseen, for the span of exactly four panels - we're already run ragged. And the problem is, most of these premises could have been fantastic arcs in their own right. Spencer clearly understands Sam Wilson as a character, as Sam realizes that Cap believes the country will do right, while he can only hope it will. So why try to shove these storylines together at once?

One additional hurdle that Spencer has to deal with is his predecessor's work. Rick Remender did an excellent job with Sam Wilson's first adventures, but his work was far more action-packed than Spencer's more inventive take. But Spencer's eyes wind up being larger than his stomach as he tries to shoehorn in elements from Remender's run, including the return of the Armadillo and rockiness with Misty Knight, not to mention the framing sequence of Sam telling his story to everyone flying coach.

The other problem is that Daniel Acuna is a great artist, but he's not a great artist for this series or this script. Spencer has a lot of packed pages, owing to the same sort of style that Rick Remender and Stuart Immonen had with Sam's first adventures with the shield. But Acuna's artwork looks stiffer and too static for a character that depends on fluidity and motion - rockets are launched and shields are thrown, but ultimately Acuna doesn't sell these moments. Combine that with some very awkward composition (particularly in the fight sequences), and you have a comic that feels like a mismatch. Where Acuna does succeed, however, is his sense of color, and ironically, his take on Steve Rogers looks more grizzled and resolute than we've seen the character in quite some time.

And ultimately, I don't like writing reviews like this, because these are talented creators who clearly have a lot to say. I think there is a ton of potential behind Sam Wilson: Captain America, because Nick Spencer gets that a country this divided can't not have some reflection on one of its greatest symbols. Steve Rogers might have grown up a Democrat in the 1940s, but Sam Wilson grew up with all the political tension of today - he's a guy who would absolutely have very different beliefs than his predecessor, and seeing Sam wrestle with expressing those beliefs gives this book a brand-new lease on life. But that excellent premise won't go far until Spencer and company really focus on exactly what story they want to tell.

Credit: DC Comics

Art Ops #1
Written by Shaun Simon
Art by Mike Allred and Laura Allred
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by Vertigo
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Art is all around us, and some pieces are so much a part of popular culture that it feels as though they live alongside us. For the most part, that is true: famous works are used as shorthand to convey meaning that belongs to entire movements, or classifications are applied to give a broad definition to the sum of human emotion. In Art Ops, art is alive in a far more literal way thanks to The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys co-writer Shaun Simon.

As with many stories involving works of art, Art Ops begins with a heist, although this one is about a small group of operatives helping the Mona Lisa out of her frame and escorting her into protective custody. Several years earlier, Reggie Riot and his girlfriend were attacked by a malevolent piece of art that resulted in her death, and the loss of Reggie’s arm. Replaced with a “Jackson Pollock” of an artistic swirl, he ekes out an existence as a boxer with an incredibly strong right cross. At least until he is approached by an enigmatic superhero named the Body, who believes something has caused the entire Art Ops community to vanish.

The narrative of a secret group of professionals working to protect us from a hidden world is nothing new in literature, let alone comic books. Yet Simon has somehow found a completely fresh spin on the genre, embracing the high concept of it and allowing the symbiotic relationship between art and story to play out towards their natural intersection. This is, after all, a story driven by living art, and this first issue feels very much like Simon is allowing us to look at all the elements and bring them together in our mind.

Mike and Laura Allred’s style has always been influenced by pop art, making Art Ops a comic book that they were born to be a part of. Rather than simply being inspired by a pop art style, the Allreds draw on a script where the art has been literally lifted out of its original context and placed with otherwise unrelated materials and artworks. To this end, Allred has carte blanche to explore the wilder side of his artistic leanings, yet nevertheless remains somewhat restrained in this opening chapter. Multi-colored arms and inky assassins notwithstanding, you can almost feel the art explosion just lurking under the surface, which is entirely thematically appropriate as well.

This is a bold marriage of art and story in a way that only comics can truly deliver on. If the uniqueness of comic books is that the reader is the third essential element, joining the dots between the otherwise static panels themselves, then Art Ops is partly about being caught in the middle of that experience. There are some promising ideas teased here that will hopefully pay off in the forthcoming issues, but for now it begins as an clever way of engaging the viewer with a discussion around art imitating life.

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