Best Shots Reviews: UNCANNY INHUMANS #2, BATMAN EUROPA #1, BLACK KNIGHT #1

DC Comics November 2015 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics

Uncanny Inhumans #2
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Steve McNiven, Jay Leisten and Sunny Gho
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

How do you fight a time traveler - especially one that has your first-born son under his thrall? That’s the problem that Uncanny Inhumans are facing down this month, as Marvel's newest franchise squares off against the machinations of Kang the Conqueror, as he erases the Inhumans' heavyiest hitters from the whole of reality. Charles Soule wastes absolutely no time turning the heat up on this new team of Inhuman and NuHuman heroes, making the tension of this issue feel personal as well as dangerous. Medusa and Black Bolt aren’t just fighting for their family anymore; they are fighting for the entire history of the Inhumans. The tight script coupled with the heavy inked pencils of Steve McNiven makes Uncanny Inhumans #2 another strong installment for Marvel’s newest crop of A-Listers.

Picking up directly after last month’s hot-headed staredown, Uncanny Inhumans #2 jumps feet first into the threat facing all Inhumans. Soule wastes little time establishing just how dangerous Kang is and how much damage he can do, while the heroes are still trying to figure out what’s hitting them. While Kang and his plan make up the crux of this issue, Soule also gives ample time to the elephant in the room: Medusa and Black Bolt’s broken relationship. The first four pages of this issue are devoted to Black Bolt putting aside his pride and asking Medusa and Johnny for help, but still standing his ground as a scorned king. Thanks to McNiven’s talent for silent facial expressions, Soule conveys all he needs to with just a few panels. In particular, a heavy scene of Black Bolt facing down Johnny as he extinguishes a candle with his bare hands, all while never taking his eyes off of Johnny. “Huh. That seems pretty clear,” says Johnny, and never has he been more right.

After that hefty bit of relationship drama, Uncanny Inhumans #2 shifts its focus to the real threat; Kang and his new acolyte, Ahura. As Medusa calls a meeting of her inner council, Kang and Ahura are hard at work traveling through time and eliminating Inhuman ancestors with extreme prejudice. As far as evil plans go, it's a great one, and Soule allows it to play out much like a particularly harrowing Doctor Who episode with characters vanishing into thin air as the leads race to figure it out. While the antagonists carry weight off-panel, Soule also quickly gets the cast together in order to establish their group dynamic before they fly off into the breach to face Kang. After a few team books that seem to be missing the team element, it is a refreshing change of pace as well as a neat visual opportunity as the Uncanny Inhumans are a motley bunch and cut a cool image all together, charging into battle.

While Soule’s script brings the drama and the villainy, Uncanny Inhumans #2 also looks every bit the blockbuster thanks to Steve McNiven, Jay Leisten, and Sunny Gho. McNiven once again proves that he has a firm handle on every character’s design and look, especially Queen Medusa, who looks more beautiful and fierce than ever before. Medusa is a character that has surely given artists fits in other books, but McNiven makes drawing her and her dangerously gorgeous hair look easy. Each panel she is in, she becomes the absolute focus of it, no matter how innocuous. While McNiven’s pencils are great, they wouldn’t be anywhere near as striking without the heavy inks of Jay Leisten, who adds a deep level of dimension and detail to each panel. Tying it all together are the flatly metallic colors of Sunny Gho who brings the same manga-inspired energy to the Uncanny Inhumans that he did to Avengers and Superman. While the Inhumans may be struggling to find their place among Marvel’s elite, the art team of this book shows that they can deliver an issue that can more than stand next to other artistically slick Marvel offerings.

While the All-New All-Different Avengers may be grabbing all the headlines, Marvel’s new premiere team has delivered yet another solid, propulsive issue. Uncanny Inhumans #2 not only makes great use of one of Marvel’s best antagonists, but also positions this new team as a major force in the "All-New All-Different Marvel" landscape. While this issue raises the stakes and starts the team working together, Charles Soule also keeps the title heavily entrenched in human emotions and down to earth storytelling, even though the Inhumans are anything but down to earth. Coupled with some dynamite visuals, Uncanny Inhumans #2 marks another strong outing for Marvel’s newest superteam.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman Europa #1
Written by Matteo Casali and Brian Azzarello
Art by Jim Lee, Giuseppe Camuncoli and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by Pat Brosseau
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

While Jim Lee began a storied career at Marvel Comics before becoming one of the co-founders of Image, his pinnacle as a superstar comic book artist was arguably his work on the Batman storyline "Hush," as his iconic designs helped take the character's sales into the stratosphere. With that in mind, any reunion between Jim Lee and the Dark Knight is reason to pay attention, and it's that same artwork that helps elevate Batman Europa #1. While Matteo Casali and Brian Azzarello's story feels fairly run-of-the-mill, Lee's artwork keeps this book from feeling anything but.

What will likely surprise readers - and perhaps polarize them - is a notable shift in Lee's artistic style. Working from layouts by Giuseppe Camuncoli, Lee opts for a wispy inking style with this series, reminding me a lot of Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove during Marvel 1602. It's a bit of an adjustment, as Alex Sinclair's colors wind up doing just as much heavy lifting as Lee's finishes, but once you get used to it, you can still see Lee's blockbuster style underneath. In many ways, Europa feels like a greatest hits album from Lee, as he's able to draw upon the duality between Batman and the Joker - Batman is serious and stocky, while the Joker is rubbery and thin, the consummate trickster set alongside the ultimate straight man. But even pages that are just marking time wind up looking superb in Lee's hands - a sequence of Batman tearing the Berlin underworld apart looks spectacular, with Camuncoli's sharp compositions reminding me a lot of Jae Lee's ultra-deliberate work.

With this spectacular artwork, it can be expected - perhaps even forgiven - that the story doesn't quite measure up. How could it? Writers Matteo Casali and Brian Azzarello have put Batman on a globetrotting case, unfortunately leaning into the old Arkham City trope of infecting the Dark Knight with a deadly disease that will kill him swiftly if he isn't cured. But whereas Arkham City used the Titan infection to give Batman a ticking clock, Casali and Azzarello go one layer deeper, using the Colossus disease to force Batman to team up with his most hated adversary. Azzarello and Casali don't go too deep into this unlikely partnership in this issue - and with some surprisingly entrendre-filled lines like "our blood, on each other's lips" and "this time I'm ready to go all the way... and do it," that might be for the best - but there's some great potential here for this off-kilter dynamic duo.

But what ultimately Azzarello and Casali don't sell is why the European setting. Admittedly, Azzarello's noir-infused voice doesn't really carry here, but beyond a few factoids in Batman's narration about the history of Berlin, we don't really get the unique flavors of each locale. Europa could be a really fascinating way of showing how Batman operates in different locations - similar to the ideas that Grant Morrison used in Batman Incorporated - but for now, there's so much about this story that still feels like any other traditional Batman story. When you have an artist like Jim Lee on board, you know he's already done the traditional Batman story with "Hush" - what twists can you throw him to make this project really worth his obviously scarce time?

Perhaps you can chalk it up to a slow week at DC, or simply a slowing down on all fronts with the holidays approaching, but Batman Europa winds up being one of the strongest of the DC books this week. Ultimately, that praise is due primarily to Jim Lee flexing his muscles, treating readers to see a master in action. While the change in styles might not be to everyone's liking, it's Lee that makes Batman Europa worth your time - hopefully, with that hook in place, Casali and Azzarello will up their game in future installments.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Black Knight #1
Written by Frank Tieri
Art by Luca Pizzari and Antonio Fabela
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

Black Knight has a interesting history in the Marvel Universe. Depending on when you started reading Marvel comic books, you might remember him as a member of the Avengers and Defenders (among other superhero teams), a one-time enemy of the Avengers, or just a character that you’ve never heard of before. Marvel’s own twist on the King Arthur tale has just about done it all, and with Weirdworld bringing some of the House of Ideas’ sword and sorcery characters out of the woodwork, now seems about as good a time as any for a new Black Knight. But Frank Tieri and artist Luca Pizzari have only a tenuous handle on a concept, allowing their narrative to be overrun with explaining who and what the Black Knight is. Adding insult to injury, Pizzari only shows flashes of potential across 20 pages, making Black Knight #1 an ugly mess of a book.

Part of the problem with Black Knight is that all the potential hooks are right there in front of us, but Tieri does almost everything he can to actively avoid them. Dane Whitman finds himself a modern man in a world runs by knights and monsters. On the surface, that sounds eerily similar to the whole Captain America “man out of time” narrative that we’ve grown used to. And considering that Dane finds himself in an unfamiliar world as well, there’s definitely some of Rick Remender’s “Dimension Z” DNA going on here, not to mention the King Arthur narrative already locked into Whitman’s story as a character. In theory, making this a home run should be simple, but Tieri opts to bog down the book with inane voiceovers that mostly amount to Dane talking about how weird Weirdworld is ad nauseum. Tieri is obviously using these voiceovers to make Dane a more relatable character, but it’s more annoying than endearing. And for all the explanation that Tieri gives for the current status of the world, we aren’t given much of an understanding about why the Ebony Blade is such a unique artifact in the Marvel Universe. This is the whole reason that Dane Whitman is the Black Knight, so why don’t we find out anything about it?

I can’t even say that Luca Pizzari wasn’t given anything to draw. In fact, despite the overwrought narration, there are some potentially fun visuals going on. The book opens in a battle sequences and proceeds to have at least two more monster encounters before the book’s end. The problem is that Pizzari’s Weirdworld has none of the charm or wonder that was defined by Mike Del Mundo’s work during Secret Wars. Pizzari rarely uses backgrounds, so we have little context for where our characters are. The character renderings are sketchy and jagged, making the book look like it was either drawn quickly or by an artist who had reached the limits of his talents. But on a few other pages, it’s clear that’s not the case. The scene featuring the fire-breathing rock trolls has a sense of scale that we don’t get to see elsewhere in the book. The linework is tightened up there as well before giving way to the less defined lines that are the book’s norm. Antonio Fabela’s color make matters worse. The colorist’s reliance on brown and red palettes fail to make anything really stand out. Instead, the pages looks homogenous and as a result, even the best moments in the art tend to be forgettable.

A lot of people will point to the choice of character as a reason for the book’s failings. But there is no such thing as a bad character (well, maybe Forearm, but I digress), only creative teams who fail to help them meet their potential. The fact is, we have decades of Black Knight stories of varying quality, but Tieri and Pizzari are unable to scratch this one into the win column. It might be that Weirdworld is too open a setting and Black Knight too unfamiliar a character for them to feel like they can really let loose, but when has potential ever really been a deterrent to good storytelling? It might not be fair to write off a book after one issue, but they aren’t even letting Dane Whitman be established as a character before bringing in some big-name guest stars. If the only way you can define a character is through his relationships with the marquee names in your publishing line, then you’re doing something wrong, because we seen time and time again that that’s no way to create a lasting legacy.

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