Best Shots Reviews: ACTION COMICS #52, BLACK PANTHER #2, More

DC Comics May 2016 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Action Comics #52
Written by Peter J. Tomasi
Art by Dale Eaglesham, Scot Eaton, Wayne Faucher and Tomeu Morey
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Rebirth is almost upon us and DC is trying to wrap things up across the board. 'Trying' is the operative word here. Superman is embroiled in a multi-issue crossover that spans multiple titles and unfortunately leaves us with chapters like this one - completely dull, overwrought filler. The creative team has proven itself time and time again on other projects but things just don’t coalesce here. Peter J. Tomasi is trying to add emotional weight to the story but it’s too bizarrely plotted to really have any meaning. Dale Eaglesham and Scot Eaton want to give the reader some interesting visuals but those just don’t exist in the story so they trudge along with fairly utilitarian work that is effective but not totally impressive.

These are “The Final Days of Superman” and the Man of Steel is dying. There also happen to be a couple of versions of him running around in this post-Convergence pre-Rebirth mish-mosh of continuity that is DC's current landscape. One of Tomasi’s strengths as a writer has always been cutting to the heart of a plot to find the emotional core but this one rings hollow. There isn’t any clear chemistry between Superman and Wonder Woman. All the elements of the plot seem to be forced on a collision course with one another and there is no resolution because of the nature of the crossover. The issue feels like an excuse to have Batman toss in a line about why the Lazarus Pit can’t be used to revive Clark and the rest is just meaningless window dressing. Lois does have a good conversation with Solar Flare Superman about what it means to be a hero but it’s not enough to make the issue feel relevant.

Dale Eaglesham and Scot Eaton are solid artists in their own right and their pencils in this issue try to elevate a script that doesn’t give them much to work with. Because of the nature of the issue, they stick with a fairly standard approach that allows the story to play out as easily as possible without the art distracting from it. I like the little flourishes that they use to set each of the Superman apart from one another aside from their general designs. Each one carries themselves a bit differently and that’s evident in the linework. Wayne Faucher’s inking follows that utilitarian lead and Tomeu Morey turns in a generally good coloring outing even if his palette does skew a little dark sometimes.

In trying to get us to the finish line that is the end of the "New 52," DC is really limping along. While Batman has gotten a fairly succinct finish to this era of DC publishing, Superman’s final days are spent much like the first ones - a varied, scattershot approach that doesn’t serve the characters or creators as well as it should. This storyline is a mess and one that readers will, no doubt, want to move on from. But why should they have any faith that DC will handle the Man of Steel correctly in the next go-around? Completists won’t mind flipping through this one but more casual fans might just want to wait for Rebirth.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Black Panther #2
Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Art by Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin
Letters by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

”So I know now that this is who I am--Might. Shame. Rage. And now they know it, too.”

As T’Challa steals scene after scene in theaters across the world in Civil War, he is barely holding himself and his nation together in Black Panther #2. After an explosive debut issue, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates slows things way down as he examines T’Challa’s internal conflict in deeper detail as well as allowing us, the readers, to get to know those that would usurp their king, proving us rich scenes with the Midnight Angels as well as introducing yet another radical, but one that takes a more learned approach to insurrection. Though nowhere near as kinetic as the opening issue, Coates still takes full advantage of the fantastic pairing of Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin for an issue that, like Civil War, provides readers both sides of the conflict and finds them both equally valid.

Delving into Black Panther’s deep and seldom used history, Ta-Nehisi Coates opens this issue with a tragic origin for just one of the series’ antagonists, the psychic Zenzi, who has been quickly gaining a following thanks to her handiwork at the mines in the debut issue. T’Challa, of course, being T’Challa decides that he must bring her to heel all on his own, and here is where his problems go from bad to worse. While Black Panther has long been a prideful and sometimes arrogant combatant, Coates takes that a step further, giving us an emotional context for his flying solo into the jaws of his supposed enemy. Coates’ replaces the confident, yet unsure regent of the debut issue with one fully at war with himself and his choices, which Coates heightens by making T’Challa’s big assault on Zenzi’s stronghold a failed endeavor as the citizens were never in any danger and they see their king as a powerful, but misguided king; playing right into Zenzi’s plan and leading to the powerful quote I used above. Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t afraid to bring the king low and, as the issue goes on, we see that he can still go even lower.

But while Coates casts T’Challa down from his high tower, he also gives ample attention to those who would see him deposed from the highest seat of Wakanda. As the Panther rushes into a fight, the Midnight Angels are actively looking out for the people of Wakanda who thought they were abandoned by the throne by raiding criminal compounds and freeing the people that they have taken. Telling them after they get to safety that they deserve a better country while leaving a giant flaming message to the Panther: “No One Man."

While the Midnight Angels shore up the support of those forgotten by the Golden City, Tetu, Zenzi’s Nigandan commanding officer, takes a much more subtle approach, enlisting the support of Wakandan intellectual Baba in order to not only defeat T’Challa on the field of battle, but on the field of learning. But instead of just glossing over the supposed enemies' positions, Black Panther #2 allows each party to fully detail their positions through Coates’ rich prose and usage of a timely and pertinent passage from the philosopher John Locke. While this second issue isn’t a blockbuster in terms of action, Black Panther #2 has much more on its mind than kinetic set pieces and that is what makes it such a satisfying read.

That said, artists Brian Stelfreeze and colorist Laura Martin still deliver another solid issue visually amid Ta-Nehisi Coates’ towering words and dialogue. Rendering the quick action of the Midnight Angels and T’Challa’s wrongheaded assault on Zenzi in long, panoramic panels, Stelfreeze’s smooth yet blocky pencils leap from the page, made even more enthralling thanks to Laura Martin’s richly dark colors. Stelfreeze and Martin also acquits themselves well to the more supernatural elements of Black Panther #2 as Zenzi hammers T’Challa with her powers. They render and color the scene much like a ghostly purgatory with bleak green backgrounds, ghostly versions of Shuri and T’Challa, and a whispy fog that spreads through the scenes. Black Panther #2 shows that even without wall to wall action, this art team can still wow without explosions and constant fisticuffs.

Marvel has long been know for its more human and relatable heroes and now Black Panther #2 brings one of its most powerful down to the level of a mere man. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, and Laura Martin deliver a human story of people doing what they think is right in the only way that they know how; through might, grassroots support, and intellect. Black Panther #2 frames this new superhero solo title as a slowly building political thriller as well as a story about a man and king who is losing his grip on who he is and in turn, his throne. Black Panther #2 may not wow readers like the debut issue did, but it continues the series’ thematic richness and sets the title up to go to places that superhero comic books are often afraid to go.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #52
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Riley Rossmo, Brian Level, Ivan Plascencia and Jordan Boyd
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

There’s always been something child-like about Batman’s quest to punish criminals. His dark persona was initially driven by the murder of his parents, and we’ve seen Martha and Thomas Wayne’s pearls spill out onto Crime Alley so many times, we collectively have some understanding of what his nightmares must look like. Whether it’s the iconic Joker or the more recent Court of Owls, one almost gets the impression that if Batman could capture the personification of evil, he would be satisfied to continually punch it in the face as therapy. So following the end of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s impressive five-year roller coaster, rather than try and top "Night of the Owls," "Death in the Family," or "Zero Year," writer James Tynion IV instead gets to the heart of what makes Bruce Wayne tick, and the delicate relationship between him and adoptive father/partner Alfred.

The final issue of "New 52"’s Batman is both a standalone piece and a tribute to what has come before. With the voice of Alfred in his earpiece, Batman doggedly pursues the enhanced bank thief Crysis across Gotham, and there is a pervading sense that it is because the crime is a personal one for Bruce. Tynion runs a dual narrative, taking a page out of the non-linear Batman Begins playbook, demonstrating how Bruce’s childhood therapy was crucial in forming the essence of what Batman became decades later.

As a transitional book between the "New 52" and Rebirth, this issue of Batman is strikingly different in tone and art style to the Snyder/Capullo collaborations over the last five years. After almost a year of the robotic Bat-Gordon, it’s a back-to-basics approach for the Dark Knight, as star artist Riley Rossmo reintroduces a classic Batman standing on a Gotham rooftop with lightning cracking overhead. On the surface level, it’s a fairly straightforward narrative as well, with Batman simply chasing down a high-powered thief over the course of a rainy evening. Yet it’s the nuance Tynion puts in the flashback sequences that gives this issue its points of difference, ensuring that we remember the reason those routine nights out in Gotham are still so important to his persona.

While it is a shame on some levels to not see Greg Capullo finish this run off completely, having only been absent for a mere handful of the 52 issues of the main series since its inception, Rossmo owns every inch of this bookend issue. Tynion affords him every opportunity to showcase his fluid art style, be it dynamic rooftop sequences or a kick-ass scene in which Batman surfs on the roof of his own Batmobile. Ivan Plascencia and Jordan Boyd’s colors are turned down a few notches to mirror aspects of Rossmo’s recent Constantine work, along with the constant rain that permeates the issue, but it also means that the flashes of Batman’s new purple cape interior, or the glow of Crypsis’ tech, are all the more prominent for it. Rossmo knows how to stage a showstopper, but there’s a energy and pathos to quieter scenes too, drawing a direct line between the wide-eye Bruce Wayne as a child and the one standing before Alfred as an adult.

Tynion and Snyder will, of course, continue their association with the Dark Knight with Detective Comics and All-Star Batman under the Rebirth banner. While Snyder's Batman run has had its incredibly vocal fans and detractors at both ends of the spectrum, his legacy on the character has been ensured with the introduction of some worthy adversaries, and genuinely trying to do something different with an icon that often lends itself to repetition. Tynion, who has been involved in this run almost as long as Snyder, expanding the world with his work on Talon, ends this lengthy run with a stirring embrace of the Batman saga, and just as Bruce Wayne learns by the end of the issue, the best way forward is by honoring that past.

Credit: Marvel Comics

The Vision #7
Written by Tom King
Art by Michael Walsh and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose ‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Who’s afraid of Virginia Vision? After the latest issue of The Vision, maybe we all should be, as Tom King and guest artist Michael Walsh dive deep into his synthezoid hero’s romantic history, delivering an interlude that is equal parts hopeful and chilling.

Given that the Vision has often been seen as a supporting character in Avengers lore, it’s a real testament to King’s skill with characterization that he’s able to mine so much out of his lead’s scattered continuity. From the blossoming romance taking place on the sidelines of a battle against Count Nefaria to the awkward glances following their first time in bed together, King does an excellent job at establishing the chemistry between the Vision and his first love, the Scarlet Witch.

But underneath those stolen kisses and cute pillow talk, King reminds us that Wanda wasn’t the only screwed-up person in that relationship — indeed, the Android Avenger’s almost repellant approximation of humanity comes off as deeply unsettling, but in a very deliberate and engaging way. From small details like the robotic, instant messenger-like “Hahahaha” laughter to the almost plaintive way he asks Wanda about what good will come from lying about their magically-induced children, there’s a wonderful mix of naivete and directness to the Vision. While he has the analytical prowess of a machine, he lacks that human thought process to understand the consequences of his actions - and by the end of the book, you realize just how far his inherent inhumanity has taken him.

Filling in for Gabriel Hernandez Walta, guest artist Michael Walsh does a great job with this flashback issue, with his rougher linework deftly portraying the deeply disturbing household that the Vision and Wanda had built for themselves. His jagged shadows in particular seem to evoke something menacing just around the corner, and a sequence featuring a near-catatonic Wanda reminds me a bit of Jeff Lemire in its eeriness. Colorist Jordie Bellaire keeps the tone of this book consistent with its previous issues, but watching Bellaire and Walsh work together with the all-white incarnation of the Vision proves to be a particularly chilling sight.

As far as interludes go, The Vision continues to be a can’t-miss affair, with King, Walsh and Bellaire recontextualizing the many adventures of the Vision, and showing just how creepy this hero can be. Seeking out love is a very human emotion, and perhaps it’s even human to show how much love can be twisted if handled in the wrong way, or pursued for the wrong reasons. It’s a subtle but relatable kind of terror — the kind that The Vision has always done best.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Brody’s Ghost TPB
Written by Mark Crilley
Art by Mark Crilley
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The first word that springs to mind when trying to describe the Mark Crilley's Brody's Ghost is efficiency. Characterization, plot, and tone are all handled with equal respect and care. The entire book is incredibly focused, balanced, and remarkably well paced. It stands as one of the best pieces of urban fantasy I've read in some time.

Brody's Ghost is about a young man named Brody, who, in the wake of a two year relationship that ended before the story begins, is completely listless. His apartment is filthy. He is emotionally drained. He looks like a mess. He is already at his lowest point when the reader meets him. One day, while poorly busking for spare change on the sidewalk with his guitar, he is visited by a plucky ghost named Talia. He is understandably freaked out and goes full monomyth with his refusal of her call to adventure. Talia tells Brody that she has been locked out of heaven until she completes a certain task on Earth, catching the elusive serial killer named the Penny Murderer, who leaves pennies on the foreheads of his victims. After being introduced to and training with a centuries-old spirit, Brody has a vision of his ex-girlfriend, Nicole, as the next victim of the Penny Murderer. This adds tension to his mission to apprehend the killer by giving it a definite timeline. It needs to happen before Nicole is murdered.

Ordinarily, serial killer plots illicit eye rolling from me. As Charlie Kaufman puts it in Adaptation, "The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personalities." Luckily, Brody's Ghost avoids the pitfalls and clichés of that trope. Apart from the freshness that the supernatural aspects bring to the story, the real focus of the narrative is never the serial killer. That's a part of both Brody and Talia's goal, but the narrative is never about that. The story is about Brody and Talia, and it never ceases to be about Brody and Talia. As their friendship deepens, they both grow as characters. All of this is done with such efficiency that it comes of as effortless on the part of Crilley.

There are pros and cons to comics being written and illustrated by the same hand. A creator runs the risk of overextending themselves and in an effort to do their best work on both narrative and artistic fronts, wind up falling short in both regards. Fortunately, the story avoids that particular pitfall and instead demonstrates what an auteur comic can really be. Every panel is exactly as it should be, and artwork never detracts from narrative or vice versa. Both elements of the comic run alongside one another. When it requires a particularly dialogue intensive plot point, the art tones back and brings attention to the progression of the story and characterization.

Likewise, several of the comments biggest moments are told largely through the art alone, in panels lacking any dialogue or narration. Crilley sets up these moments with the writing before letting loose with long and wordless sequences and splash pages. There is a rhythm to it as there is with all components of the comic. The best sequences happen when Brody has a brief flash into the surreal and nightmarish mind of the Penny Murderer and when Brody cries over a vision of Talia's corpse from five years prior. With the former, there is a David Lynchian, subconscious aspect to the art as it breaks from what the reader has come to expect from the book. With the latter, we see the two primary characters in these extremely vulnerable states separated by a long period of time. Brody's tears over Talia's death, a death that he has known about for months, are touching.

There are two aspects of the story that slightly hold it back. It gets a little weak around the point where Nicole walks in on Brody sitting at her favorite bookstore. While his intention was not to run into her there, given the circumstances it appears that he had been waiting for her. Brody's outrage over Landon, Nicole's new boyfriend, trashing his apartment in retaliation seems a bit misplaced, considering Brody himself admits that his "protecting" of Nicole is ultimately "stalking" and is problematic. Making Landon a member of the mob is also a misstep. It makes things too clear that he doesn't belong with Nicole, whereas Brody is a better choice.

The book's conclusion is a little ambiguous about whether or not Brody and Nicole wind up together again is also mildly frustrating. The problem here is that the story up until this point has worked as a pretty solid allegory for picking yourself up from the kind of major heartache you can experience as an adult. All of Brody's progress as a character is disregarded if ultimately the relationship is what he is rewarded with and not Brody improving himself. While Brody and Talia are characterized extremely well, Nicole falls a little bit flat. We know her through Brody, and Talia explains that Brody is remembering the past of his relationship with rose-tinted glasses, but the story just leaves that there. It never really pursues how the relationship may have affected Nicole, or how Brody's admitted temper issues may have negatively affected her. For a story that is so caring of its primary characters while also being fair in its portrayal of their flaws, Nicole is a frustrating ideal.

The interesting dynamic between Brody and Talia is the real highlight here. They are not a couple, but their relationship is filled with interactions and moments that wouldn't seem out of place in a romantic pairing, but they always run deeper than that. Additionally, the story's central metaphor of picking yourself up after you've lost a vital part of yourself is really fascinating. Brody transforms in several ways throughout the course of the comic. Talia herself subverts a lot of Manic Pixie Dream Girl expectations by showing some frightening darkness of character, but she ultimately grows as well. Brody's Ghost is an impressive tale about coming of age after you've grown up.

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