Best Shots Reviews: DETECTIVE COMICS #936, FLASH #2, NEW SUPER-MAN #1, ACTION COMICS #959

"New Super-Man #1" preview
Credit: Viktor Bogdanovic (DC Comics)
Credit: DC Comics

Detective Comics #936
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Alvaro Martinez and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Marilyn Patrizio
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Normally, when a comic book gets a guest artist three issues into its run, it’s usually considered the kiss of death. But most guest artists aren’t Alvaro Martinez, and that makes all the difference for Detective Comics #936 — not only does James Tynion IV continue to impress with his deft juggling of Batman’s second-tier associates, but Martinez punches way out of his weight class as he brings Tynion’s script to life.

While previous issues of Detective Comics have borne more than a passing resemblance to classic issues of Uncanny X-Men, Batwoman’s boot camp for Gotham crimefighters has lost any semblance of training wheels, thanks to Batman himself being taken down by a veritable army of well-armed and even better-trained fighters. With the Dark Knight down and out, Tynion does some great work showing how Batwoman and company would react in his absence — while Kate shares her own doubts to her ex-girlfriend Renee Montoya, she brings a steely reserve as she confers with her second-in-command, Red Robin. Spoiler and Clayface, meanwhile, serve as the book’s comedic relief, while Tynion channels some of the great Kelley Puckett/Damion Scott Batgirl stories with his take on Orphan, as she rushes into battle to single-handedly tackle an entire squadron of bad guys.

It would have been enough for Tynion to have cracked the chemistry of Gotham’s various vigilantes, but his pacing and structure might make Detective Comics a career highlight for him. From the slow open illustrating why Kate has adopted such a hard-line attitude with her trainees to the quick montage of the Bat-family being called into action, this story never lingers too long in any one place, instead moving briskly with just the right balance of character work and fan service. There’s a real deliberateness with the action here, as well, with Orphan and Col. Jacob Kane each getting some jaw-dropping surprises thrown into the mix. While critics might (rightly) see more than just a passing similarity between the threat of the Colony and Scott Snyder’s Court of Owls, Tynion takes enough swerves to make this story stand out — not the least of which is his comparatively inexperienced protagonists.

But while I’ve been talking about Tynion, I can’t forget about Alvaro Martinez. While he’s bounced around DC on scattered issues over the past year and a half, including stints on Tynion’s Batman & Robin Eternal, Detective Comics #936 is some career-making work. From an opening page that evokes the same sort of stylish layouts as Francesco Francavilla, Martinez goes for broke on every single page, and it shows. I could spend a lot of time listing any number of great moments in this book — from the shadows on Kate’s face as she picks up an urgent call from Red Robin, to Orphan soaring over the Gotham skyline, to some truly fantastic work as the background monitors in the Belfry show Batman getting taken down by the Colony. Honestly, it’s rare for anyone in the Big Two to take this level of care with their work — the gauntlet has been thrown, and I hope the other artists in DC’s stable can outdo themselves the way Martinez has here.

While it’s still early in terms of DC’s Rebirth, right now, it’s hard to think of a series that’s been as high-quality and as fun as Detective Comics. On paper, the idea of a super-team featuring Batman sidekicks sounds like a derivative premise, but Tynion and Martinez prove that any premise can be a great one, with the right execution. The next installment of Detective Comics can’t come soon enough.

Credit: DC Comics

The Flash #2
Written by Joshua Williamson
Art by Carmine Di Giandomenico and Ivan Plascencia
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Jeff Marsick
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

The Flash #2 is one of those comic books that’s frustrating to read because every plot point feels like a pitch thrown right in the sweet spot of the strike zone, but each turn of the page feels like a surprising opportunity lost. Which is a shame, because while this title and its lead are the tentpoles of DC’s “Rebirth,” writer Josh Williamson and artist Carmine Di Giandomenico don’t do enough to push and challenge the Fastest Man Alive.

With last issue’s lightning strike on Barry’s friend August Heart and his subsequent access to the Speed Force, this is the opportunity for Barry to be a mentor and teacher to a new generation of speedster. Instead, he runs August through a couple pages of speed-calisthenics — arm vortices, tornado creation, phasing through walls — before the guy has even had a chance to make sense of what’s happened to him. “It’s good to take it slow,” Barry tells him, but this seems a little much all at once. Yet a later conversation between the two sows some particularly promising seeds of debate over the privilege of power trumping due process - indeed, if it’s a plot that’s revisited, Williamson might be beating Marvel’s Civil War II at its own game. Such confrontation leaves it wide open for Heart to become impulsive with his ability — “The bad guys will never outrun us again” — which would set up an interesting dynamic of this new mentor and mentee. But it’s not capitalized on, as a subsequent scene has Heart apparently toeing Barry’s line.

And ultimately, that might be this book’s biggest weakness. While there’s plenty of potential to this issue’s set-up, the thing slowing down The Flash most is that there’s nothing really at stake with this story, nothing to turn the screws on Barry Allen and those he cares about. This chapter always seems to backtrack on itself just before it can ever ride any narrative momentum: Iris gets herself into trouble, but then gets herself out. The bad guys with the Black Hole group and their odd leader Dr. Carver seem to have the upper hand, but then they don’t. "New 52" Wally West makes a one-page appearance, but it doesn’t add to the story. Each instance is an opportunity to add depth to the story, but each time it’s shied away from. It’s a shame, because the final scene in this book proves to be an interesting twist, but it feels like we had to tread a decent amount of water to get there.

Still, Williamson is an adept writer, and he tells us less and lets the art show us more in this issue than he did in the first one, but the dialogue still feels forced at times, which makes me come away feeling that he’s not writing for a more adult demographic, but is instead skewing younger to less discerning readers. The first issue set the tone for a melding of the comic book title with the television show it inspired, but this series seems to echo the tone of the show, which is a little off-putting because it feels like an attempt at copying as opposed to establishing its own identity.

Even the artwork by Carmine Di Giandomenico feels uneven. During his action sequences featuring shots of Flash sizzling in a cloud of lightning, his pencils are incredibly kinetic, looking like storyboards for a CGI-heavy movie. But panels of characters talking to each other are more like a rougher Peter Chung, which can be jarring in transitions. Ivan Plascencia’s colors terrifically aid and abet the better aspects of the pencilling, and it’s interesting to notice the change in sky color — purple and dark blue in one direction, normal and sunny in the other — depending on where the panel’s focus is, presaging early the coming of the storm and what happens on that final page.

Where this series leads will certainly further define the Flash’s relationship with the Speed Force — not to mention what manner of sentient energy comprises the Speed Force — and will probably make Barry regret wanting to be a mentor. In short, there’s a lot of narrative ground that The Flash can cover — I just hope that coming issues ratchet up the tension and put more on the line for Barry to be challenged with.

Credit: Viktor Bogdanovic (DC Comics)

New Super-Man #1
Written by Gene Luen Yang
Art by Viktor Bogdanovic, Richard Friend and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Diversity has been a problem in comics for decades, but just about every publisher has taken strides to solve it. From hiring more diverse creators and introducing new characters, we’re starting to get to the point where a reader of any age, gender, race and body type can find a character that represents them. DC’s New Super-Man is their latest foray into this initiative, and it asks the question, “What if China created their own Superman?” Writer Gene Luen Yang tackles the concept, but not all that successfully. His narrative is bland, and it isn’t helped by Viktor Bogdanovic’s sparse, thin pencilling. There’s a chance for both creators to create something truly definitive, but neither one is up to the task.

Part of the problem with Yang’s story to this point is that Kong Kenan is just so unlikable. He’s a bully, and despite Yang’s attempts to prove otherwise, he isn’t able to justify Kong’s actions in the book as being anything other than ego-driven. The “jerk with a heart of gold” narrative isn’t anything new, and while there are bits and pieces in the narrative that suggest that there was some deeper rumination on mood, themes and the tone of the book, developing those ideas seems secondary to getting Kong in the suit and delivering on the promise of a New Super-Man, with the inclusion of the underground superhuman lab that gives Kenan his powers feeling almost like an afterthought.

Furthermore, Yang’s dialogue is clunky and unnatural especially when it comes to the smug, self-satisfied Kong. It’s not impossible to have a character who is kind of a blowhard but still entertaining (see: Booster Gold), but Yang isn’t able to get us there. In order to do so, Yang might have needed to take a longer form storytelling approach. “Decompression” may sound like a death knell to many comic book fans, but think about Brian Michael Bendis’ approach to Ultimate Spider-Man. By being able to draw out the big moments in Peter’s life, readers were able to get a fuller picture of a character they already thought they knew intimately. That kind of character work allowed readers to stick with the book even when some of the arcs lacked nuance or effective execution.

Making matters worse is Viktor Bogdanovic’s art. On some level, he comes across as a budget Greg Capullo but his thin linework feels sparse rather than intentional. He’s unable to create a captivating world around the characters and because of that, the story loses some of the unique visual elements that the setting might have provided. His character designs are boring at best and their panel to panel renderings are consistently inconsistent. Kong’s face and body type fluctuate wildly throughout the book, making it seem like the artist never quite had faith in the initial design. His expression work ranges from competent to laughably bad. It’s never that the expression work is inappropriate for the scene, but it’s hard to ignore the squiggly eyes and unfinished features that run rampant here. Richard Friend and Hi-Fi’s contributions are overshadowed by the bad base they have to work with. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.

DC probably wants (and maybe even needs) New Super-Man to be something of a hit. Marvel has seen a lot of success with giving readers a diverse set of heroes taking on mantles with some significance to the larger Marvel Universe and DC wants a piece of the pie. But this books feels so forced. By the time we get to the final pages, we haven’t learned very much about Kong and we’ve already had two new heroes introduced. As far as origin stories go, this one fails to be captivating on either a narrative or artistic level. In theory, New Super-Man is the kind of book we need more of right now, but this outing isn’t the one we deserve.

Credit: DC Comics

Action Comics #959
Written by Dan Jurgens
Art by Tyler Kirkham and Arif Prianto
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

The classic Clark Kent might be winning over readers in the pages of Superman, but the Man of Steel doesn’t seem to be faring as well in the pages of his sister title, Action Comics. Featuring the return of ‘90s ubervillain Doomsday, writer Dan Jurgens and artist Tyler Kirkham seem to be stuck in the past, delivering a free-for-all that tries to evoke “The Death of Superman” without earning any of the tension of the original event, or adding anything new to make this current story feel fresh.

Whereas much of DC’s "Rebirth" initiative has been about bringing icons back to basics and showing off engaging characterization, Action Comics feels like it’s gone back to some not-so-good old days, with this story largely being Superman and Doomsday exchanging punches, with the occasional bits of soap opera with Lois, Jon, Lex Luthor, and a mysteriously vulnerable reporter claiming to be a returned Clark Kent. But the majority of this book is just the aforementioned punching, with little deliberateness in the fight choreography outside of standard tackles and car throwing — it’s one thing to say we’ve seen fights like this before, but Jurgens literally wrote Doomsday’s first appearance nearly 25 years ago, and even that fight felt more tense and desperate than this.

Of course, some of the structural issues with this comic aren’t Jurgens’ fault — he’s inherited probably some of the most toxic comic book continuity this side of the Clone Saga, and he’s been tasked with the incredibly thankless job of trying to clean it all up. But what was already a complicated status quo (and seriously, killing off your flagship character and replacing him with an older, married version of him from another timeline is pretty much the definition of complicated) gets even more convoluted with not just the inclusion of Lex Luthor as another Superman, but with the introduction of another Clark Kent, who bumbles his way through the issue telling everyone he can that he’s the real deal. I get that this is Jurgens’ way of putting the genie back in the bottle as far as Superman’s secret identity, but the overall execution feels like almost Silver Age levels of goofiness, down to alleged super-genius Lex Luthor actually buying this hapless reporter’s story.

It doesn’t help that this comic somehow out-‘90s the original “Death of Superman” thanks to Tyler Kirkham’s artwork. Kirkham feels like a mashup between Ed Benes and Freddie Williams II, and while I know there’s certainly a demographic that will eat that up, Kirkham’s artwork, along with the over-rendered colors of Arif Prianto, feels like the runt of the litter as far as the current DC "Rebirth" stable is concerned. While his early flashback work featuring the original “Death of Superman” story has a nice twist, with panels swirling in Lois Lane’s hair, the rest of his layouts feel cramped and haphazard, with Jurgens’ dialogue having to tell readers what’s going on, rather than letting the visuals tell the story. Instead, because he isn’t able to pace out Jurgens’ rhythm effectively, this battle for the ages feels surprisingly low-impact — there’s one panel of Doomsday throwing a huge piece of debris at Superman and Lex, and it’s almost unnoticeable when Lex blasts it out of the way. Even as a fight comic, this book doesn’t deliver.

Having read literally every book in the "Rebirth" lineup thus far, I can say that despite some occasional missteps, DC has by and large made some encouraging course-corrections across its entire lineup. Unfortunately, Action Comics thus far feels like the exception to the rule, being the loud but insubstantial yin to Superman’s heartfelt and evocative yang. While Dan Jurgens is clearly in an untenable position having to bring Superman’s status quo back to a sustainable equilibrium, his attempts feel so stale that it’s hard to give too much leeway, even for the benefit of the doubt. Here’s hoping he can get through the necessary evil of continuity housekeeping quickly, and get Action Comics back to where it belongs.

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