Best Shots Reviews: DARK KNIGHT III: THE MASTER RACE #1, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY #2, SAGA #31, More

Image Comics' November 2015 cover
Credit: Image Comics

Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1
Written by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello
Art by Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson, Brad Anderson, Frank Miller and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

You can almost spot the moment in Dark Knight Strikes Again, the first sequel to Frank Miller’s seminal Dark Knight Returns, where the auteur’s will breaks. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Miller shared every New Yorker’s mixture of rage, helplessness and confusion over where to direct his emotion. Where the original Batman story had been a pointed musing on the slippery slope of Ronald Reagan-era reactionary tactics to crime on the streets and the media, its sequel was a response to the equally knee-jerk environment of revenge politics, ultra-right conservatism and Miller’s own changing political views. Which makes Dark Knight III: The Master Race all the more necessary in 2015, where the 24-hour news cycle and the ubiquity of social media has made it impossible to escape the messages of a culture of fear.

Batman has managed to find a new visage in every era for the last 75 years or so of his history, and the same is true of the Miller version of the character. What was once framed within the talking heads of the '80s television is now introduced by a text conversation, in a story that is very much co-written by Brian Azzarello. New appearances of the Batman spread virally across the mixed media, but apart from the window-dressing this is still an update on the world Miller first created in 1986. Just as Dark Knight Returns was a series of two halves, this first issue of the latest series also spends its time divided between rumors of a return and Lara, the daughter of Wonder Woman and Superman. This first issue takes the primary job of laying out the rules of this expanded universe, and the pacing reflects that.

Singer-songwriter Ryan Adams recently released a much-publicized cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989, reaching out to new audiences with something that used the original text and language, but was a decidedly different beat to the poppy original. This is exactly what reading Dark Knight III: The Master Race is like. While Miller’s voice is unmistakably in there, this is a different beast, albeit one that is still co-scripted and based in the world of the man who created it. However, it’s no longer simply Miller’s radical voice, and the collaboration is both a blessing and a curse at times. How much of Miller and Azzarello is in each part is somewhat unknown, but there’s an element of the familiar in this book. The police chase of the returned Dark Knight through the streets of Gotham could be a flashback for all its similarities and cinematic reenactments, although at least part of this is to play with our expectations for a dramatic cliffhanger reveal.

On the flipside of that, there is the mini-comic that sits inside this one, Dark Knight Universe Presents: The Atom #1, which is far more of an exemplar of where modern Miller is at. The wraparound cover was the cause of some derision of Miller’s artistic leaning when it circulate the web a month ago, although the interiors show a more steady hand that perhaps shows where Miller’s interests in this saga now lie. Concentrating on the titular Atom, it also gets closer to the “Master Race” aspect of the main title, with a leading conversation between the diminutive hero and Lara about the bottled city of Kandor. It reveals both where Miller’s head is at concerning the broader picture of this Dark Knight Universe, and tellingly indicates exactly what DC wants to do with this property going forward.

Of the rotating series of artists that will join this series, Andy Kubert is an amazing choice to kick things off, his imposing hero shot of the Batman’s costume in the first panel setting the tone for the rest of the book. A street punk caught in headlights. A Dark Knight dropping on top of a GCPD car. A montage of television screens. Tight individual panels surrounding a fight. These are not simply clever uses of layout, but iconic images. It’s just difficult seeing this world not purely created through the pencils of Miller himself, as erratic as they may have been in the previous outing, and heightens the sense of this being a cover song rather than the maturing hand of a wearied artistic hero.

Dark Knight III: The Master Race is so far exactly what one would expect from a book carrying this title, and perhaps that is what is holding it back from being great. It’s a reminder of the greatest hits of Batman, a character that is necessarily defined by key moments in his existence. It sometimes seems that Batman has been mining the darker nights since the 1980s, although our era certainly lends itself to heroes that exhibit parallels the vigilantism of that earlier decade. It won’t be until the subsequent chapters that we truly get to see if this is merely tipping a hat to a moment in time, or if it will break free and deliver a fresh and original playlist.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Guardians of the Galaxy #2
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Valerio Schiti and Richard Isanove
Letters by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

No matter how far they go, the Guardians of the Galaxy will never escape their past. Therein lies the crux of Guardians of the Galaxy #2, which finds our favorite space rascals finally starting to pay for their involvement in the destruction of the Kree homeworld, Hala. However, this being an early issue of a Brian Michael Bendis series, most of the narrative found within this second issue is backstory with very little forward momentum happening until the very last page. That isn’t to say that Bendis’s handle on character isn’t present - it is - but a title cannot survive or thrive on quippy dialogue alone. Thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy #2 has some fantastic artwork from Valerio Schiti and colorist Richard Isanove to raise it up out of its table-setting sophomore slump. Guardians of the Galaxy #2 may not be the most propulsive issue, but at least Schiti and Isanove make it look that way.

Right off the bat, Valerio Schiti and Richard Isanove let the audience know that they are in for something different visually with Guardians of the Galaxy #2. The first six opening pages are all two-page splashes, all dealing with the origin of the Guardian’s new foe Hala the Last Accuser as well as a short but sweet primer as to the importance of the Kree homeworld of the same name. Schiti’s detail oriented pencils coupled with Isanove’s rich colors capture both the glory of Hala and the pain of loss felt by the last Accuser as she returns home to find her kin wiped out and her planet cracked in half.

Supplemented by Bendis providing Hala's narration explicitly detailing her reasoning behind her attack, Valerio Schiti and Richard Isanove round out the splash page with a rousing encounter between Hala and the newest member of the Guardians, tThe Thing, who delivers one hell of an “It’s clobberin’ time!” across two gorgeously rendered pages. From there, Schiti and Isanove switch back to traditional panel grids and Guardians of the Galaxy #2 loses a bit of its visual spark, despite those panels still being just as finely detailed as the splash pages that came before them. However, Guardians of the Galaxy #2's issues aren’t with its visuals, but instead with its sluggish script.

While the debut issue wasted little time establishing the new normal for the Guardians both old and new, its second installment gets bogged down as it introduces its newest villain. Having Hala’s main motivation being revenge for her destroyed planet is a great bit of connective tissue to the previous series, Bendis doesn’t need to spend page after page establishing that. While the splash pages that detail this backstory are great to look at it, as a whole, this backstory bogs down Guardians of the Galaxy #2 and makes the whole issue feel like its running in place in order to build tension toward its finale.

Guardians of the Galaxy #2 isn’t a bad issue, but it is a frustrating one all the same. At this point, even casual readers can pick up on Brian Michael Bendis’ narrative tics and structure down to the scene and Guardians of the Galaxy #2 is another example of his tendency to tell rather than show when it comes to new series. However while Bendis opts to draw things out, artists Valerio Schiti and Richard Isanove opt instead to just draw the hell out of things and deliver some much needed visual flair to the issue. While the Guardians’ past may be haunting them, their future looks bright, even despite this second issue stumbling block.

Credit: Image Comics

Saga #31
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Fiona Staples
Lettering by Fonografiks
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The only thing that brings more anguish than the events of a Saga cliffhanger is the excruciating wait between arcs. These are made all the more pointed by Brian K. Vaughan’s stubborn refusal to give us all the answers at once, and that is just one of the many reasons why we are all willing slaves to what is unquestionably one of the most compelling new stories of the last few years. So now that we finally have it back, the first issue of a new arc naturally strings us along with loads of new information, but still teases some crucial pieces for later.

When we left the Saga team, the infant Hazel had been kidnapped away from her parents, but remains with her grandmother and ghostly babysitter. In the "questions first, answers later" approach that has a been key to this series, we don’t get the immediate gratification of the consequences of the bloody aftermath of Saga #30, but rather a time-jump that kicks off the story around Hazel’s fourth birthday. Now being schooled inside the prison, she has been separated from her parents this entire time. As she learns to trust new people, the family curse appears to follow her.

The sex, violence and occasional dragon penis in this series often allow us to forget the fact that much of this story has been told through the eyes of a child, and this issue is a poignant reminder of the tragedy that such a narrative choice engenders. The innocence of Hazel’s gaze takes everything for granted, from the violence that surrounds her to a salient introduction of an intersex inmate character that foreshadows Hazel’s own revelations. So in essence we get a catch-up with the gang from Hazel’s point of view, and this is perhaps why the issue feels deliberately measured to include little movement until the twisty ending. Yet the slightly older Hazel is a joy to spend some time with, and proof than even in the most serious of sagas, there’s always room for a fart joke or two.

We haven’t had as much of a chance to miss Fiona Staples, thanks to her excellent work in re-crafting the citizens of Riverdale in Archie, and here she gets to stretch her wings literally and figuratively. Obviously, there’s a new character model for Hazel, who has grown into a terrifically imagined hybrid of her parents. There’s a touch of the abstract in the architectural design of an isolated building that sits high atop two cylindrical blocks, marking a variation of Staples’ style. Yet she still excels in the art of the one-page splash reveal, from the aforementioned inmate to a twin set of beats involving Hazel and her teacher in the final moments of the book.

Even in a Saga issue where “not much happens,” there is still a ton of new information and cliffhangers to digest. It’s a book that is undoubtedly breathing a rarefied air right now, confident enough to launch straight back into a new arc without showing two of the three main characters at all, but simultaneously running the risk of alienating those who aren’t yet inductees into the club. Saga is back and everything is more or less right with the comic book world again, and those questions that need answering will be what keeps us going until the next hiatus.

Superman: Lois and Clark #2
Written by Dan Jurgens
Art by Lee Weeks, Scott Hanna and Brad Anderson
Lettering by A Larger World Studios
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

If nothing else, Convergence allowed the storytellers at DC to open up their landscapes to a wider variety of tales. In many ways, our journey as readers parallels the titular characters in Superman: Lois and Clark, given that long-term audience members have an advantage over the rest of the current continuity. We know what came before, we have seen the seismic and subtle changes to our beloved characters, yet we firmly remain in the same observational shadows that a pre-Flashpoint Clark must endure. The power we readers have always been able to exercise is in turning our gaze towards focal points in the Multiverse, and this is undoubtedly one of those points that deserves your attention.

A bearded Clark Kent and Lois Lane continue to eke out their existence on a new Earth, the primary Earth of the elegant DC Multiverse. Writer Dan Jurgens shows us why there are certain universal truths about Lois and Clark no matter what Earth they land upon. Lois is continuing to write, discovering Intergang and their intention to seek out these new arrivals. Clark cannot help but be a hero, saving cities while valiantly trying to remain under the radar. In showing what a Superman who must exist in the shadows is like, the same way that Batman must operate to a certain extent, Jurgens actually highlights the fact that Clark Kent is a hero on any world. This is summed up nicely when Lois asks if it would make a difference if she wanted him to stop, to which Clark replies that it would be “like asking the wind not to blow.”

The Convergence titles showed us what would happen if comic books’ first couple got their happily-ever-after, whereas Superman: Lois and Clark is about them actively working to keep that way of life. We got hints of their domestic life in the Convergence tie-ins, but here it’s the casual interactions between Lois as a mother and their son - or the enigmatic father figure that Clark represents - that make this a compelling read. Without opening a can of comparative worms, it lives up to the promise of what the Superman Returns film could have been, focusing on a powerful couple who might have to compromise their fame in order to live out their ideal lives, but never have to stop being who they truly are.

Lee Weeks continues to impress with his artistic choices on the book, bringing as much realism and weight to the tender and romanticized domestic moments as he does to the full page splashes of Clark “doing a job only a Superman could do.” What’s especially neat about Weeks’ approach is that it is very much a mainstream DC Comics style, immediately evoking the sense of familiarity and nostalgia with these characters that is needed to convincingly pull off this title.

One of the things that DC rarely exploits these days, and certainly not post-Flashpoint, is the sheer number of stories and versions of characters that is has to draw upon. Hypertime notwithstanding, the canonical status of one timeline negates another until it is time to do an event every five years or so, at least until Convergence. This intersection between the old and the new is written purely to warm the cockles of fan hearts, and if it continues in this vein, we will have some very toasty cockles indeed.

Credit: Marvel Comics

All-New Wolverine #2
Written by Tom Taylor
Art by David Lopez, David Navarrot and Nathan Fairbairn
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

You'd think they might have learned from the last Clone Saga.

Following its cliffhanger from the last issue, All-New Wolverine #2 takes a troubling nosedive in its sophomore outing. Yet while Spider-Man's Clone Saga alienated fandom thanks to its bloated storyline and nonsensical plotting, Tom Taylor stumbles because his story happens to be a washed-out clone of somebody else's.

Remixing genres and storylines has become second-nature in superhero comics - we've seen it with Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction's kung fu-oriented Immortal Iron Fist, or Peter David's early detective-inspired X-Factor. But Tom Taylor's All-New Wolverine feels more like a carbon copy of another, more superior story, with Laura Kinney tracking down a runaway sisterhood of her clones, a la Orphan Black. In fact, the similarities are just jarring, and I'm shocked that Taylor went ahead with a storyline that was so similar to such a hit series.

And it's a problem because Taylor's biting off way more than he can chew here. Starting off with way too much exposition and a needless blip of action in the first third of the book, Taylor not really add anything to the Orphan Black-esque nature of his story beyond some pretty uninspired action sequences, but he doesn't even really reach the original bar of characterization that the popular BBC America series initially set. Some of this might have to do with Laura as the initial template - she always had a flat affect to her characterization, even with the addition of the Angel as her boyfriend to try to humanize her - but Laura's clones don't fare much better.

To keep belaboring a point, Orphan Black was so popular because all of the clones had wildly different personalities, styles, interests and strengths - one clone was a gay hippie biochemist while another was a homicidal religious maniac with platinum hair and a heavy Russian accent. Laura's clones, however, are largely interchangeable, with Taylor not being able to imbue these women with any sort of deep personality or motivations. There's a precocious younger clone that provides exposition and to (try to) dig some emotional hooks into the reader, another clone who is quick on the trigger, and another clone who's just... there? Not only does it ring several alarm bells by failing to live up to its clear inspiration, but it also keeps Taylor from fleshing out X-23 - which should have been his top objective all along.

While the writing might feel listless, the artwork is decent enough. David Lopez and David Navarrot play well off each other, with colorist Nathan Fairbairn making sure that everything looks cohesive. Lopez's smooth linework reminds me a lot of Alan Davis, particularly when the room explodes into a two-page action sequence. Yet there are a few pages, particularly towards the beginning, that seem a bit directionless - an opening page of Laura being brought in to Alechemax Genetics feels sterile and cold thanks to the bland composition and lack of background detail. Much of this is due to an unbalanced script, but when you're presented a talky, exposition-heavy first scene, this issue stumbles hard visually, and doesn't quite catch up. Additionally, the art team doesn't quite tackle the issue of Laura's clones that well - there are superficial differences, like size and hair color, but there are no strong choices that show us what kind of internal life any of these women have going on.

Considering that I really enjoyed the first issue of All-New Wolverine, I'm hoping that this is just an unfortunately hiccup. There's a lot of potential here, but it's troubling to see Taylor and company committing to a high concept that not only doesn't play to their strengths as artists, but has been mined so thoroughly and so well by such a high-profile group. We're only two issues in, but already this series is in need of some major course correction - we already have Orphan Black, and we don't need another clone of it. What we do need is for this creative team to show us how all-new and all-different this Wolverine can be.

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