Best Shots Reviews: SPIDEY #4, BATMAN/SUPERMAN #1, MOON KNIGHT #1, More

DC Comics March 2016 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Spidey #4
Written by Robbie Thompson
Art by Andre Lima Araujo and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

In the realm of television, you occasionally get something I’d call 'pilot syndrome,' where what you see in the opening episode is not necessarily what you’re going to get for six seasons and a movie. The Flash, for example, took four episodes to really click on its characterization, tone and pacing; iZombie figured it out by episode two. Even House, M.D. was virtually unrecognizable to its orange-tinged, monochromatic first episode.

And that’s an applicable analogy when it comes to Spidey #4, written by Supernatural showrunner Robbie Thompson, who proves that four is this series’ magic number. Packed with fun character moments and even more ambitious visual sequences, Peter Parker’s first face-off against Doctor Doom winds up being far and away the best installment of the series, even without the presence of superstar artist Nick Bradshaw.

Taking a page from the epic of Dante Hicks, Thompson winds up quickly distilling his Peter Parker down to his Stan Lee and Steve Ditko-era archetypes, as the teen hero just tries to take a day off after a week of being wronged by classmates, the press, and his typical gaggle of supervillains. But given the long history of the old Parker luck, even a trip to the art museum winds up turning into a battle royale against the leader of Latveria himself, Doctor Doom. Or, in the hands of Thompson and artist Andre Lima Araujo, a Doombot in skinny jeans and a hoodie. “Did you become a hipster and not tell me?” Peter snarks. “Can I call you Doomster now?” Combine that with a self-deprecating internal monologue where Peter critiques his own quips, and you’ve got one of the funnier issues of Spidey to date.

But it’s also one of the most ambitious, and due credit goes to Araujo for swinging way out of his weight class to try to keep up. While I couldn’t help but wonder how much Nick Bradshaw would have dominated with some of the great visual sequences that Thompson scripted, you can’t deny that Araujo doesn’t do some exciting work here, particularly with a splash page of Spidey and the Doombot bouncing across the lobby of the Guggenheim, or a show-stopping double-pager featuring a cross-section of Spidey plowing through an entire building like a wrecking ball. Araujo’s work, particularly on that double-pager, reminds me a lot of Ramon Villalobos from E is For Extinction, with a lot of loving detail thrown into the backgrounds for eagle-eyed readers. While I do feel like Araujo’s compositions feel a little distant and less intense than my liking, his character designs wind up feeling like a surprisingly good fit for Spidey, even if Bradshaw is still dearly missed.

Yet Thompson isn’t just content with action and humor, but he also leavens this book with some sharp character moments, whether it’s Peter having a cute heart-to-heart with one of his younger fans, or Thompson recognizing that somewhere deep down, there’s actually a lot of similarities between this brilliant teenage outcast and this brilliant not-so-teenage dictator. While you can’t help but wonder what an artist like Bradshaw might have done on a script this good, it’s not to say that Araujo slouches one bit on this book. If this is a case of pilot syndrome at work, I’d say that Thompson has finally figured out exactly what he wants to be - and if that’s the case, Spidey readers have just hit the jackpot.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman/Superman #31
Written by Peter Tomasi
Art by Doug Mahnfke, Jaime Mendoza and Will Quintana
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Peter Tomasi goes two for two with Batman/Superman #31, which continues the "Super-League" saga - or as this arc is ominously titled, “The Final Days of Superman.” Wracked with a terminal condition after putting his body through unimaginable strains, this week’s issue features the Man of Steel engaging in some old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes superhero action with the Dark Knight. While there’s a little bit of stalling when it comes to the episodic pacing of this arc, there’s still some great character moments and some beautifully realized artwork that makes this one of DC’s strongest books this week.

It’s a real testament to Tomasi that for characters as iconic - and as often redefined - as Batman and Superman, he doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but instead really captures their individual voices, reminding me a lot of Batman/Superman Adventures by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. The book starts with a kinetic opener, with Batman ferociously taking down the crime boss Tusk: “Don’t think I forgot about your brat taking my ivory!” Tusk shouts. “Maybe I’ll take the other one for his collection!” Batman snarls back. But once Superman himself arrives, things get serious fast, as the World’s Greatest Detective immediately knows something is amiss, thanks to the green creeping up in Superman’s eyes.

What follows is one of the more fun exchanges between the two characters in recent memory, as Batman’s single-mindedness seriousness creates some wonderful sparks against Superman’s earnestness and dignity in the face of his own death. Beats like Clark being introduced to Robin’s dog Titus - or grinning when he meets Bat-Cow - really highlight the kind of warmth that’s been missing from the character lately, and Alfred giving Clark a grateful final salute of a handshake is such a quiet but powerful moment.

It’s all stitched together by Doug Mahnke’s artwork. Given Mahnke is usually teamed up with multiple inkers to make up what must be punishing deadlines, watching him paired up with just one inker - Jaime Mendoza - shows us the kind of consistency and potential that gets lost with assembly line inking. Mendoza goes heavy on the inks here, which works especially well with Batman - Mahnke portrays him at first as an all-black silhouette that makes his new yellow icon really pop off the page, while a sequence of Batman being slowly constricted by a deadly snake looks wonderfully tense. And while the villains at the end of the book feel a little less than inspired - I’ll get to that in a minute - you can’t deny that the bestial avatars of the Chinese zodiac don’t look menacing and beautiful.

But admittedly, the last third of this book does jump the tracks a bit, as Tomasi steps aside to let Mahnke draw some brutal fight sequences. While these look great, there’s no characterization meat to these bones, with the Four Pillars shouting in Chinese with little context. That’s been a bit of an ongoing problem with Superman lately, is that because he’s nearly invincible, creators wind up throwing faceless cannon fodder at the Man of Steel in an effort to let him cut loose without too much bloodshed. But here, it doesn’t feel like the fight choreography was particularly well-established - it doesn’t feel like a case for Batman and Superman, but instead is just a quick ambush that probably any superhero worth their salt could survive. Additionally, Tomasi takes us out of the story a bit by telegraphing the next chapter, featuring Supergirl in her CBS digs of National City - we wind up seeing where Kara is on a final page splash, but since she’s only mentioned in dialogue up to that point, the page doesn’t quite land its punch.

But ultimately, it’s ironic that in his final days, Superman winds up sounding more true to himself than he has in quite some time, and that’s a big compliment to Tomasi and company. Watching the World’s Finest duo team up and face their own mortality is a great bit of characterization in an industry that all-too-often focuses on the short-term stunts rather than the long-term readability. While there might be plenty of big books out this week, you’d do well not to overlook Batman/Superman.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Moon Knight #1
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It's time for Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood to offer themselves to Khonshu with Moon Knight #1, yet another re-imagining of the dangerously deranged Marc Spector. After Gregg Hurwitz's vengeful take, Brian Michael Bendis' A-list of multiple personalities and Warren Ellis' dapper Mr. Knight, Lemire and Smallwood recast Marc Spector as a life-long mental asylum inmate whose super-heroic alter-ego is a mere delusion. Or (as the classic cliche always goes) is it?!

Lemire's take leans heavily on Spector's psychosis, providing a dark and introspective first issue that shies away from fighting crime in favor of establishing an incredibly restrictive new status-quo for Moon Knight. Lemire leans heavily on the archetype of the abusive mental hospital to mine sympathy for our titular character, thanks to an unbelievably sadistic pair of orderlies. Marc Spector is disoriented and confused, a wretched soul guided by visions of ancient Egyptian gods. He's told he's been here for most of his life, yet his mind is filled with memories of a ghostly alter-ego.

This is very much an introductory issue, as Lemire spends the entire issue walking us through Marc's incarceration. He is very much at home with the fundamentals of Moon Knight, but it isn't a massively compelling status-quo. We all know that Moon Knight happened, so the central mystery falls flat. You spend the issue waiting for Marc to break out of the asylum so we can start the series off proper, but Lemire's entire narrative is built around Marc's confusion at being told his entire life didn't really happen. It's frustrating, but then again it's supposed to be.

Greg Smallwood's artwork is detailed and expressive. From the grimy and dilapidated hospital to the bruised, bearded and prematurely-aged faces of its patients, Smallwood's style suits the depressing nature of Lemire's script to a tee. Panel composition-wise, Smallwood offers up a varied and interesting selection of pages that masterfully guide the reader's eye through the book. Circular panels-within-panels show detail in an inventive and fresh way. Elsewhere, panels stack like rungs as Marc ascends a staircase, or shrink from page-length to a thumbnail as he loses consciousness. The story occasionally flicks back to Marc's past, at which point Smallwood switches to a looser, textured and painterly style that evokes the insubstantiality of memory.

Colorist Jordie Bellaire uses contrast to great effect here, placing the clean white of Moon Knight's costume and hospital scrubs against the cracked walls of the eerie mental home. Color is used sparingly, making things like the dark green of the city sky and the bright red exit door really pop against the monochromatic palette of the rest of the book.

After various dalliances with total psychosis, Jeff Lemire's pushed Marc Spector into the deep end. Although he offers nothing new; from the stereotypically oppressive asylum to Marc's trademark wild hallucinations of Ancient Egyptian iconography, his solid grasp of character makes for a sympathetic portrait of a tragic character. Marvel has a muddied editorial history with Moon Knight; a property that solid creative teams seem eternally attracted to. He's a blank slate with a cool costume and a penchant for ultra-violence, but past that... who knows any more? Instability is a part of the character's DNA, and this reviewer looks forward to see what else Lemire and Smallwood bring to the table as the story progresses. Ultimately, it's Greg Smallwood's knack for visual storytelling that elevates Moon Knight #1 into a worthwhile pick-up for new initiates to the avatar of Khonshu as well as die-hard fans.

Credit: DC Comics

Black Canary #10
Written by Brenden Fletcher
Art by Moritat, Sandy Jarrell and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Regardless of one’s individual feelings around the reworking of Batgirl and Black Canary under the "DC You" era, Brenden Fletcher certainly filled the original brief of the "New 52" in reimagining these two classic comic book characters. Their worlds have been necessarily intertwined since their rebirth, but Fletcher has managed to create distinct identities and tones for a consciously youth-centric approach to these heroes. Just last month, DC Entertainment released a 3-track EP of the fictional Black Canary’s music, building even more layers to the Multiversal experiment. So in the latest Black Canary, Fletcher concentrates on the musical aspects of “D.D.’s” personality and past, creating something true to their history but wholly unique as well.

Despite being two very different iterations of Black Canary and Batgirl, there’s a real throwback quality to this issue as Dinah uses Batgirl’s photographic memory to help her track down answers about Dinah’s mother’s disappearance and the motivations of a “ninja death cult” her aunt is connected to. Despite the more comedic tone to some of the earlier scenes, it’s almost as if the Babs and Dinah interacting here are the familiar heroes from Chuck Dixon or Gail Simone’s days. Once the action begins, it’s a joy to watch how effortlessly the duo works together, a positive sign for the forthcoming Batgirl and the Birds of Prey under DC’s Rebirth banner.

Even with this old-school nostalgia, Fletcher never betrays the music roots of his series concept. Even though D.D. has temporarily departed with the band, the tunes still form the backbone of this issue. D.D. and Babs spend much of the story exploring the music video past of Dinah’s mother, giving Fletcher a chance to explore some of the Bauhaus aesthetic that has been such a clear influence on his Black Canary band.

These influences extend over to the art, tackled by two distinct artists in this issue. Moritat kicks off the first handful of pages, a manga-inspired approach to what is effectively a conversation between two characters. The transition to Sandy Jarrell’s art is almost seamless, and he follows the Bauhaus brief to the letter. Photos of singer Izak Orato are a dead ringer for Peter Murphy, while a new villain wears something out of Adam Ant’s wardrobe. Colorist Lee Loughridge holds it all together consistently, excelling during the fight sequences by using a vivid blend of purples and yellows to highlight the wordless heroines in action.

Black Canary is a pleasing change of tone for a series that’s now almost a year old, giving pre-reboot fans a taste of the old magic. While it’s mostly an issue about D.D. finding out who she is outside the context of the band, there’s a dynamic between that eclectic group of misfits that is sorely missed in this outing. Perhaps that is the lesson to be taken away here, that Black Canary works best as a character when she has equally strong characters to surround her.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Thanos: The Infinity Finale OGN
Written by Jim Starlin
Art by Ron Lim, Andy Smith, and Guru-eFX
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Thanos: The Infinity Finale is epic in every sense of the word. Occupying a sort of Marvel Elseworlds universe, cosmic powerhouses Jim Starlin and Ron Lim, along with inker Andy Smith and the colors of Guru-eFX, finish out their Thanos/Adam Warlock cycle in grand fashion with a poetic and consciousness expanding tale of the final battle between Thanos and Annihilus for the fate of all of reality. While written in Starlin’s typically prosaic style, Thanos: The Infinity Finale is still a gorgeous slice of 70‘s Marvel psychedelia packaged in a slick hardcover for today’s audience. Though unconcerned with continuity, Thanos: The Infinity Finale is a well produced throwback to the wild early days of Marvel’s cosmic characters.

Opening with yet another resurrection at the hands of his Mistress Death, Thanos is back in this pocket universe and ready to rain down holy hell on Annihilus. Starlin, having set up this story in various other Thanos- and Adam Warlock-led original graphic novels and miniseries beforehand, cuts right to the quick with The Infinity Finale and starts the Man Titan on his warpath almost instantly, side stepping any real world-building or exposition. While in other books that might annoy me, in The Infinity Finale I felt pleasantly unmoored and allowed myself to just take in the story as Starlin intended. In doing so, this OGN felt delightfully weird and poetic, thanks to Starlin’s overwrought dialogue and truly out there plotting, which includes not only this pocket reality in which Thanos and Annhilus are at war but also multiple Adam Warlocks, a Pip the Troll B-story, and dead Celestials. While I can promise that readers who are more well verse in Starlin’s recent output will get more out of his OGN, The Infinity Finale still has more than enough comic book weirdness to offer up for those unfamiliar as well.

As Thanos attempts to resort some sort of balance to this reality, he is forced to once again ally with some of this universe’s surviving heroes as well as Adam Warlock, who is still adjusting to his new-found omnipotence, granted to him by this universe’s Beyonder and Infinity. Starlin takes full advantage of these team-ups and uses them as the perfect opportunity to cast Thanos as a grim, nihilistic foil to the heroes as he uses each of them as a means to an end and casts no illusions as to his doing so. Thanos, as a character lately, has been cast a tragic hero and as a despotic warlord, but Starlin finds an interesting balance between the two. In The Infinity Finale he is working to crush his enemies, for sure, but he is also surprisingly aware about his situation and the danger the fabric of reality is in and so, he works toward righting the ship, but in his own, very ruthless way. Though Thanos is mostly thought of as one of Marvel’s biggest and baddest big bads, it is nice to see that Jim Starlin can once again turn him into a dark and engaging leading man when he wants to.

Though Jim Starlin shows that he still has more than a few galaxy-spanning scripts in his arsenal, artist Ron Lim, aided by inker Andy Smith and colors from Guru-eFX, also shows that he hasn’t let age slow him down one bit. Lim’s pencils throughout The Infinity Finale are a sight to behold. Presented in huge, almost coffee table book like pages, Lim spreads the action and starry vistas of space across entire pages, pulling the reader in not with panels, but with multiple splash pages, made even more dynamic by the thick inks of Smith and the rich colors of Guru-eFX. Lim even acquits himself gorgeously to the more trippy visuals of Starlin’s script, like the bleak whiteness of Adam Warlock accidentally erasing reality or the quick sojourn into the Beyonder’s realm. Thanks to the OGN format Ron Lim and his art team are given plenty of room to play, and play they do with increasingly interesting results.

While it may serve as the latest installment of a long-running story cycle, the Thanos: The Infinity Finale OGN feels wholly singular, yet representative of one of Marvel’s most innovative eras of storytelling. Jim Starlin, Ron Lim, Andy Smith, and Guru-eFX have all converged to deliver a story that feels displaced in time in the best possible way. Though the characters that we all know and love are present, The Infinity Finale reads like a book that could have been right at home right beside the original Adam Warlock and Thanos epics. The Marvel universe is a big place, but The Infinity Finale reminds readers than that there are bigger things, and beings, out there in the expanse.

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