Best Shots Reviews: DAREDEVIL #5, BATMAN & ROBIN ETERNAL #26, GODZILLA OBLIVION #1, THE X'ED #2

"Godzilla: Oblivion #1" cover
Credit: IDW Publishing
Credit: Marvel Comics

Daredevil #5
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Ron Garney and Matt Milla
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The first arc of Charles Soule and Ron Garney’s Daredevil doesn’t end with a bang or a whimper — instead, it ends with a Twitter meme and a boot to the face. While this finale doesn’t quite check all the boxes in terms of delivering an emotional payoff, there’s still plenty of beautiful artwork and solid meat-and-potatoes superhero action to sustain fans’ interest for now.

Over the course of Daredevil’s history, Marvel has always played up this myth that Hell’s Kitchen is a whole other world compared to the rest of Manhattan, a dark pocket of crime and decadence unseen and unnoticed by web-slingers and shield-wielders. And in that regard, Charles Soule has taken that same sort of myth and extrapolated it upon Chinatown, where the cult of Tenfingers and the threat of the Hand have bubbled unbeknownst to the rest of the public. There’s that sense of other-ness in Soule and Garney’s Chinatown, which highlights those entrenched immigrant cultures that resist that melting pot rhetoric, that has informed much of the flavor for this story — yes, Daredevil is a hero who is blind, but only he and his apprentice Blindspot are the ones that fight for a group of people who are largely isolated and invisible to the world around them.

And while Soule ultimately gives us some obligatory superheroics — and listen, Daredevil kicking a “corpse-engine” composed of 100 dead ninjas in the face is a pretty boss sentence to type, let alone read in a comic book — the actual real meat of this story isn’t surrounding the Man Without Fear, but his young partner. While I haven’t been a big Blindspot fan for some of the previous issues — in part because Soule still hasn’t quite gotten the right balance in terms of sharing spotlight between his two main characters — the story of Samuel Chung has finally started to gel together. Sam embodies the story of the second-generation immigrant — while his mother has embraced Tenfingers’ cult, based in magic and superstition, Sam instead is about looking forward, literally rejecting his mother’s religion while encased in his tech-based invisibility suit. And while Sam is certainly rougher around the edges than Matt Murdock in terms of combat, Soule really does give him the heart of a hero — even when he’s surrounded by sword-wielding enforcers and struggling with a busted suit, this is the guy who literally stands at the gate to protect his neighborhood. It’s good stuff.

But the problem is, while this is a great Blindspot story, that’s not the title of this book — and as far as a Daredevil story, Soule doesn’t quite get past the surface level when it comes to Matt Murdock. There’s a little bit of a Batman vibe near the end of the issue, when Matt debates whether or not to lecture Blindspot on keeping secrets, or congratulate him for winning a small victory in the midst of a bigger war, and we know there will be some consequences in the future as Matt bails on an important case to go superheroing, but that sort of stuff is pretty thin in terms of tried-and-true superhero tropes. With the character’s long history of iconic runs, his very nuanced perspective on life, and his new-and-improved superhero costume, isn’t there anything deeper that Soule can say about Daredevil as a character?

But even with those critiques, that new-and-improved look does go a long way. Ron Garney and Matt Milla use shadows and contrast to great effect, making Daredevil look all the right types of shadowy and scrappy. Garney is just so gifted in terms of his compositions — there’s a great sequence of Daredevil leaping across some rafters, only to swing across three panels, giving a monstrous Hand demon a brutal hit to the head — and because the character is largely rendered in negatives, Matt Milla’s coloring winds up making Garney’s usually scratchy inks positively pop. And honestly, I know that colorists never really get their due, but Milla really is the unsung hero of this book — he not only draws the readers eyes to the important sections of the page, but he ultimately sets up the whole visual tone of the book, a sort of heightened noir that’s a cross between old ‘70s movies and the black-white-and-red aesthetic of a Sin City.

That said, though, at the end of the day, if you’re looking for just good Daredevil art, there’s a huge back catalog of iconic stories featuring Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, John Romita, Jr., Joe Quesada, Alex Maleev, Chris Samnee and more, not to mention hundreds of commissions from just about every other artist you can think of. What’s made Daredevil stand the test of time is that the series has consistently pushed the boundaries of both art and story, constantly pushing Matt Murdock to be the standard-bearer of what superhero comic books are able to achieve. Right now, Garney and Milla are doing great work establishing the right look for this series, but Soule still needs to figure out his own stamp on Daredevil besides his supporting cast.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman & Robin Eternal #26
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Scot Eaton, Carlo Pagulayan, Igor Vitorino, Geraldo Borges, Wayne Faucher, Jason Paz, Marc Deering, Allen Passalaqua and Gabe Eltaeb
Lettering by Marilyn Patrizio
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Fifteen superheroes. Nine artists. Twenty-six weekly issues. With numbers this staggering, it’s honestly a testament to James Tynion IV and the editors at DC Comics that Batman & Robin Eternal was ever made, let alone making it to the finish line. Which is why I can’t help but be disheartened this review. Because after what was likely a herculean effort, Batman & Robin Eternal #26 may be the capstone of a supreme triumph of comic book logistics and production, but as a sequential art narrative, this finale issue somehow feels both overstuffed and underwhelming.

Over the past six months, we’ve watched Batman’s various proteges and inheritors unite under the banner of Dick Grayson, as this sprawling team of dark vigilantes have unraveled a conspiracy involving the human trafficker known as Mother. But now, as Mother’s plans and her base fall apart in Michael Bay-style movie action — on top of an active volcano, if you’ll forgive the bad movie cliche — I found myself reeling not just from this giant-sized issue’s pacing, but also from what has been a surprising shift in this series’ focus over the past few issues. As a title, Batman & Robin Eternal feels like a series that would ostensibly focus on the bonds that the Dark Knight had with his closest confidants — Dick Grayson for certain, but also with Jason Todd, Tim Drake and Damian Wayne, his four “sons,” the four boys Bruce Wayne brought in to save both their lives and his. There’s tons of drama that can be mined with a family structure such as this, an almost Big Chill-esque reflection of four sons all struggling to make sense of a world where their “father” has been lost to them.

Yet with the past few issues of this series, Tynion has only really included these Robins on a surface level, bouncing jarringly from cameo to costumed cameo, with the Robins themselves only getting a couple of puff speeches. Instead, the heart of Batman & Robin Eternal has shifted onto the shoulders of Harper Row — the shock-gun-toting Bluebird — as well as her dark mirror image, Cassandra Cain;two characters who were collateral damage in Batman’s war on crime, two broken heroes now fighting desperately to assert control over their own destinies. And that’s where I think this series has missed out on a big opportunity, as Mother and Bluebird trade expositional speeches: while her stakes are undoubtedly higher than any other characters, Harper Row is still too new of a character to serve as the fulcrum of a big weekly series like this (particularly as she uses her vaunted electrical engineering training in the climax of the book to… cut an important power wire). Heck, even Cassandra Cain is, despite Tynion trying valiantly to give her some weight as she (again) makes her life-defining decision not to kill, even though it’s someone who probably deserves it. They just don’t have the history or the emotional investment for a title this invested in history, particularly not in a world where Batman seems to get new spinoff characters every year (Spoiler, Duke Thomas, Azrael… you get the picture). But given where this series began — namely, with Dick Grayson and his surrogate brothers — ending this series with such a huge focus on (let’s face it) two tertiary characters in the current Bat-mythos doesn’t quite add up in terms of the narrative math.

The other downside for this finale has to be the assembly-line structure for the artwork, which makes this book so visually inconsistent that it becomes a little chorelike to read. With four pencilers, three inkers and two colorists on board, I get that logistically, there was no way that any artist could churn out 26 weekly issues, not without well over a year’s lead time — it’s just too much. But jumping from Scot Eaton’s smooth artwork to the scratchiness of Carlo Pagulayan to Igor Vitorino’s crisp lines at best just feels like no one’s best work — and for the pickier reader, can really take you out of the story. There are some nice bits here and there, however, like Harper laying the smackdown to Mother, with some hard diagonal angles to the compositions to make those punches and kicks really have some impact, but in particular, because this story is so dialogue-heavy and so invested in touching base with every single character, that the sheer difference in expressiveness for each artist winds up making for a jarring read.

In many ways, Batman & Robin Eternal #26 really pulls at me as both a critic and as a student of comic books as a process, because it is so obvious to me that this was not an easy book to put together, and even with partitioning out this series amongst a series of writers, Tynion has really been the one leading the charge. It might not sound this way reading this, but I truly believe that this finale coming out as a little less-than-engaging isn’t such a knock against Tynion, considering that many, many other writers with much longer track records would have churned out something that instead would have just been completely incoherent. But as a reader who is looking for a piece of writing to really grab me emotionally, I can’t help but think that this book lost its way by the end, sacrificing all that wonderful characterization of the first dozen issues in exchange for obligatory cameos, standard plot twists and low-calorie pyrotechnics. 26 issues can’t be easy, but if the sprawling, distended, occasionally meandering focus of Batman & Robin Eternal has taught us anything, it’s that for a weekly story like this, maybe less really is more.

Credit: IDW Publishing

Godzilla: Oblivion #1
Written by Joshua Fialkov
Art by Brian Churilla and Jay Fotos
Lettering by Chris Mowry
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

IDW’s newest Godzilla series sees worlds collide as Joshua Fialkov and Brian Churilla weave a tale of kaiju and interdimensional portals. Godzilla: Oblivion #1 seeks to provide a new spin on the king of the monsters as a world that never had kaiju must now deal with being connected to a world that is full of them. And so the question becomes, what does a populace do that is unprepared for Godzilla?

The premise of the interdimensional portal is a great one because it allows the monsters to enter the story without seeming forced. One of the problems that has plagued prior Godzilla tales is the sacrifice of world-building in order to reach the monster action. Unfortunately, Fialkov’s script doesn’t really take advantage of the opportunity. The premise instantly recalls the world of Pacific Rim, but the pacing of Godzilla: Oblivion #1 means the issue never quite gets the energetic pop of that film. To make things worse, the characters barely register. There are hints of tension between Dr. Talbert and Ms. Yamada, but it never gets beyond the two-dimensional tropes of a scientist begrudgingly working for an over-demanding superior.

Fortunately, artist Brian Churilla is able to pump some life into the story. Churilla’s lines have a loose and expressive quality to them, giving the proceedings a bombastic feel. Readers expecting a darker, grittier tale may find themselves disappointed with the look, but Churilla’s art is a lot of fun, especially when it comes to the monsters. However, the human characters in the book look uninspired, exacerbating the problem of their dull personalities. It’s not that the art itself is bad, Churilla is able to show a number of emotions and degrees to the expressions of the characters, but the design behind them lacks any sort of flair that would give these characters some lasting impression on the reader.

Jay Fotos’ color art works well with Churilla’s lines. For most of the scenes, the palette is desaturated, creating a colder sci-fi feel for the work. But when the monsters burst onto the scene, Fotos doesn’t shy away from the bright beams and rays that these kaiju blast at one another. The result is that Godzilla: Oblivion #1 really does come to life when the monsters are on the page.

Unfortunately, Godzilla: Oblivion #1 doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its pitch. This isn’t necessarily a bad comic; future issues may yet make this an exciting series. But the debut lacks anything to really grab hold of. The monster action is too brief for Godzilla fans, and the characters are too one-note for anyone seeking to become one. Ultimately, Godzilla: Oblivion #1 is just kind of there, which is a shame. Hopefully, the impending arrival of Godzilla can shake things up a bit.

Credit: Black Mask Studios

X’ed #2
Written by Tony Patrick
Art by Ayhan Hayrula and Doug Garbark
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by Black Mask Studios
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The debut issue of the fascinating X’ed took us on a journey deep inside the human mind, a curious blend of Fantastic Voyage, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale/Total Recall, or even Inception, if you want something more current. Concentrating on “subliminal hitman” Colin McClure and his attempts to literally enter the mind of client Evelyn Lemonson and erase her brother from her memory, things went awry when the parent company Mezign Corp was attacked and the procedure interrupted. Writer Tony Patrick swiftly takes us deeper down the rabbit hole, even if at times he seems to want to share everything about this world with us at once.

Patrick’s tale to date is marked with familiar elements, although on balance there is something unique about this story that draws the reader in, just as Colin is drawn down deeper into new layers of Evelyn’s mind. In doing so, we learn a little bit more about military veteran Colin’s past, what motivated him to be a soldier in the first place, and perhaps why he is so keen to be an assassin of memory. It’s a multi-faceted story, with just as much going on outside of Evelyn’s mind as in it, and this too makes Patrick’s tale something more than a mere pastiche of other stories. Introducing readers to the Onconscious, the level of the mind beneath the subconscious, Patrick gets to cut loose with whatever ideas he’s ever had about inhabiting the human brain.

Which is one of the greatest strengths and weakness of the second issue of X’ed, a willingness to unabashedly introduce any number of new concepts to audiences, but with the corresponding burden of saddling the reader with a lot of new information at the same time. The very thing that is keeping us engaged is the broader world Patrick is building, but it must be acknowledged that there are effectively three concurrent storylines (past, present and the inner world) being told already.

Ayhan Hayrula’s art is one of the key factors in selling this complex world, and Hayrula blessedly never holds back on the surrealism. The sepia-toned desert flashbacks in the opening pages belie the literal fall into the mind’s abyss in the subsequent panels. Colin plummets through layers of mental fabric, like they were levels beneath the Earth’s crust, sometimes comically catching glimpses of dinosaurs, the core of the brain, or a feeding ground for the ego made entirely of chickens. Then it’s a western, with deep shadows lighting the “villains” of the piece. Yet it really cuts loose when Colin hits the wrong person at the wrong time, unleashing faceless Mindfugks and the emergence of a gray hole where someone’s face used to me. Hayrula’s skill is in blending these more fantastic elements with the grounded nature of Colin’s work, and there is never any point that you don’t believe it is at least real to the lead.

There is a great deal happening in the second issue of X’ed, perhaps a little too much for such an early point in the series. Yet the plethora of new characters, concepts and scenarios is ultimately no more confusing than a journey through Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, one where the abstract images of dreams are accepted just because they are present. Patrick has maintained the tension and wonder of the first issue in this sophomore outing, coupled with the sense that we have only scraped the surface of the mystery he’s unfolding.

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