Best Shots Reviews: BLACK WIDOW #1, BATGIRL #49

DC Comics February 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Black Widow #1
Written by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee
Art by Chris Samnee and Matt Wilson
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Out of all the creative teams that Marvel has under its umbrella, perhaps the greatest and most consistent team of them all would be Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, Matt Wilson and Joe Caramagna. Having led Daredevil down one of his most critically acclaimed runs, it's not surprising to see this team working together on another of Marvel's A-list characters: Black Widow. Unfortunately, though, fans of this team are going to have to take a leap of faith with this new series - while Samnee and Wilson's art looks spectacular as always, this debut issue's decompressed pacing and stoic characterization doesn't leave much for new readers to latch upon.

If you've read even one page of preview for this issue, the status quo is already set - Natasha Romanoff is now an enemy of S.H.I.E.L.D., and is on the run with dangerous, unknown cargo. It's a sharp hook, and action junkies will be pleased to discover that this first issue is very much in the tradition of the rollicking set pieces of the James Bond era, as Natasha has to fight her way through an entire Helicarrier full of trained secret agents. In that regard, Waid and Samnee have established some fun and clever beats, like S.H.I.E.L.D. agents revving their cars Furious 7-style off the Helicarrier, or Natasha giving another agent a kiss on the helmet right before she steals his jetpack, and when you have somebody like Samnee drawing all this, of course it's going to look spectacular.

That said, I don't know if I'd argue that spectacular action is what Black Widow has been lacking as a character. While her Q-rating has never been higher thanks to a quartet of mega-hit Marvel movies, in the comics books Natasha has rarely escaped niche status, and I think the reason might because of how stoic she's been traditionally portrayed as a character. While Waid and Samnee added a real personable streak to Matt Murdock, it feels like they're playing their cards too close to the vest when it comes to Natasha, who only has one line throughout the entire issue. For characters that automatically have big followings, that's a gamble you can afford to take - but for someone like Black Widow, who hasn't drawn the huge numbers she deserves, it's hard to not eventually be numbed to all this relentless action since we get zero glimpses of what's going on inside her head. By the end of this fight-centric first issue, you'd be forgiven if you thought that this debut might just be a little too coy for its own good.

Thankfully for Agent Romanoff, however, she has some of the best artists in the business on her side. Samnee keeps this book looking intense with every single page, transitioning from fight-fights to death-defying aerial acrobats to pedal-to-the-metal car chases without ever skipping a beat. But what's perhaps even more surprising is the level of detail and care that Samnee gives his pages - for instance, seeing Agent Emily Preston from Deadpool pulling a gun on Natasha is a great Easter egg for Marvel diehards, and even little character beats like Natasha shrugging her arms in surrender look wonderful. Matt Wilson, meanwhile, does some really interesting stuff with the color palette of this book - while it starts off low-key with office-toned blues, it soon ramps up to a hazy yellow before culminating in bold, violent reds. If you're looking for a team that is consistently great with their work, you'd be hard-pressed to name many people who do what Samnee and Wilson do, particularly on a month-to-month basis.

But for a character as celebrated as Black Widow, I feel like strong visuals are the foundation to a great book - but it's far from all a great book needs. First issues are a chance for creators to hook new readers and put their own personal spin on a character - but right now, there's very little in either the characterization or the plotting for readers to get a sense of where this book is headed. Fans of the Avengers films know there's more to Natasha Romanoff than just her cold spy exterior, but I hope that Waid and Samnee can find out what that is in future installments.

Credit: DC Comics

Batgirl #49
Written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher
Art by Horacio Domingues, Babs Tarr, Roger Robinson, Ming Doyle, James Harvey and Serge LaPointe
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Batgirl/Barbara Gordon has been undergoing something of an identity crisis in the "New 52" and the "DC You" eras, unexpectedly switching paths last year to give us a redesigned and more social media-conscious lead. Yet when it comes to Barbara Gordon, it doesn’t matter which of the many hats she has worn over the years - Batgirl, Oracle or the current Batgirl of Burnside - the consistent thread has been that she is a character who fights with her incredible mind first and foremost. This is what makes Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher’s latest entry in the saga the most "Batgirl" story of all, as we get to step directly inside that complex brain and watch the kind of story comic books were made for.

The last few months have seen Batgirl’s photographic memory slipping away, an intriguing enough premise, but this month’s tale combines the immediacy of Fantastic Voyage with the hyper-kinetic tone of the modern Batgirl to take us inside Bab’s brain as her friends attempt to stop the sinister Fugue from pillaging her subconscious. On one level, we’ve seen this kind of story before, as faux memories try to interact with the real players in order to obfuscate the escape route. It’s a classic villain-of-the-week motif, but it nevertheless plays out with a sense of fun, and a full knowledge of those character notes that have defined the various versions of the character over the years. Similarly, the Fugue is an effective villain simply because he is able to scratch beneath the surface level, and just like the villains Batgirl of Burnside has encountered in her run to date, he proves to be a threat because he attacks the very core of Batgirl’s self. More than ever, Stewart and Fletcher prove their point of difference with this title.

It’s often a worry when a long list of artists appear on a non-anthology book, as it tends to indicate fill-in territory or some unforeseen malady that befell the regular artists. Instead, here it’s an excuse to showcase some of the top-flight artists in the industry as they explore different aspects of Batgirl’s mind. There’s more traditional artwork using Batgirl’s older costume, and sinister depictions of her father and the Dark Knight himself. Babs Tarr, the primary artist on the ongoing book, provides a sense of continuity with the rest of the series, but the real showstopper comes from James Harvey. Having recently played with the character in an issue of We Are Robin, Harvey combines that style with the Norman McCay inspired pieces he did for Little Nemo: Dream A Little Dream to send the reader through the looking glass. The intricate series of memories depicted in a spiral formation aren’t just a terrific tribute to the history of the character, but a stunningly framable piece as well.

Batgirl #49 is partially an answer to critics who have been unkind to the neo-Batgirl, including this one who was incredibly skeptical at the initial change of direction. However, the DC Universe is vast and complex, and a Multiverse with infinite possibilities allows for the constant reinterpretation of those icons. In a primarily art-driven piece, coupled with the wonderfully wilful version of the character that Stewart and Fletcher have crafted at the center, this issue of Batgirl is a reminder that every single one of those interpretations is equally valid, and that the malleable nature and core principles of Barbara Gordon’s personality are the reasons why she has been so enduring for the past 55 years.

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