Best Shots Reviews: SUICIDE SQUAD SPECIAL - WAR CRIMES #1, SPIDER-MAN #7, GOTHAM ACADEMY ANNUAL #1

Marvel August 2016 cover
Credit: Marvel Comics

The Best Shots crew is back in action with some of Wednesday's top titles. We'll kick things off with a look at the return of John Ostrander to DC's Suicide Squad, courtesy of Oscar Maltby.

Credit: DC Comics

Suicide Squad Special: War Crimes #1
Written by John Ostrander
Art by Gus Vasquez, Carlos Rodriguez and Gabe Eltaeb
Lettering by Nate Piekos
Published by DC Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Eighties Suicide Squad scribe and living legend John Ostrander teams up with Gus Vasquez and Carlos Rodriguez for Suicide Squad Special: War Crimes #1, a 40 page one-shot that focuses on the simpler pleasures of the comic book form, letting a classic writer make his mark on the modern line-up. For all its positives and weaknesses, Ostrander's script firmly sticks to the comic book storytelling convention of years gone by. Ostrander's by-the-numbers script is ably assisted by Vasquez and Rodriguez' emotive linework but hampered by Gabe Eltaeb's atmosphere-killing palette of bright primary colors.

As is often the case with creators who made their mark in a different era, Ostrander’s script is filled with exclamations of the obvious. This is the comic book wielded like a hammer, satisfying but utterly lacking in subtlety. Ostrander pares things down to the core and works with the bare skeletons of the Squad; Harley lacks the stylized Noo Yawk accent favored by most writers, but maintains her unpredictable excitability. The actual plot, which concerns the kidnapping of the Secretary of Defense by Strikeforce Europa in order to stand trial for war crimes at the Hague, is political fantasy of liberal minds the world over. It’s a simple set up that feels contemporary, a fun framework to hang the Squad’s violent hijinks on. From there on, it’s a straight sprint into action movie territory as Ostrander dedicates tens of pages to car chases and roadside brawls as he chronicles the Suicide Squad's reckless attempt to steal the Secretary of Defense back in order to keep America’s sordid secrets safe from an international tribunal.

Artists Gus Vazquez and Carlos Rodriguez provide angular and exaggerated portraits with elastic grins, chiefly focused on expression at the expense of a variety in panel composition. Amanda Waller's piercing stare is in full effect here, while Harley's unhinged demeanor and Captain Boomerang's angry excitability are captured with confidence. Despite the quality of their figure-work, Vazquez and Rodriguez stick to convention when it comes to panel staging. They steadily maintain a mid-level view of the action throughout, making charged scenes of chaos look a little flat despite the energetic nature of Ostrander's script.

Color-wise, this is an uncharacteristically bright book. Gabe Eltaeb's bright blue skies and vibrant hair colors are at odds with the book's grimy subject matter, giving it somewhat childish look when a little more visual subtlety would have fostered a more suitable mood. Eltaeb's Suicide Squad is a shining flash of red, white, yellow and blue; attention grabbing but ultimately too shiny and clean for a group of super-powered prisoners.

All in all, Suicide Squad Special: War Crimes #1 feels disposable, but that’s far from a criticism. Ostrander’s 40-page tale evokes childhood trips back from the newsagents with a wad of cheap creased comics under your arm, to be enjoyed once then flung into a bedroom corner and forgotten about. Visually, while Gus Vazquez and Carlos Rodriguez contribute some characterful illustration here, Gabe Eltaeb's bright colors detract from the murky nature of the Suicide Squad's mission. Despite this tonal weakness, Ostrander shows that he's just as comfortable writing for DC's Clown Princess of Crime as he is with classic Squaddies Amanda Waller, Rick Flag, Captain Boomerang and Deadshot. There are technical problems here, but Suicide Squad Special: War Crimes #1 is still a neat little one-and-done that harkens back to a simpler time, for whatever that's worth.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Spider-Man #7
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Nico Leon and Marte Garcia
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Civil War II is still trudging toward its conclusion, but its effects are already being felt in other titles. Spider-Man #7 sees Miles Morales struggling with knowing that his future may not be as bright as he hoped, but it’s not a particularly strong issue. Brian Michael Bendis’ script asks some big, obvious questions but doesn’t provide much in the way of entertainment, while Nico Leon is the latest in what seems like an assembly line of artists that can approximate Sara Pichelli and David Marquez’s styles. There are clear aspirations in this issue to inject some pathos into Civil War II’s bluster and spectacle, but Spider-Man’s creative team never gets us there.

The blame lies mostly in Bendis’ script: it’s paper-thin. Miles Morales knows, or at least has seen, that he’ll have to fight a rampaging Hulk at some point in the not-so-distant future. That’s enough to scare anyone, and Bendis attempts to use it as a springboard to talk about why Miles is even in Civil War II’s fight altogether. There’s the potential for some really good character work to happen somewhere down the line, but it’s not in this issue. Has Miles considered why this fight is important to him? Has he considered the optics and historical significance of a rich white man asking a black teenager to help fight his battles? Miles doesn’t have the answers to those questions, but Bendis doesn’t even give the character a chance to have a meaningful discussion about them. So the issue kind of just devolves into a bunch of characters having surface-level discussions (complete with back-and-forth witty banter) while nothing of note really happens. Bendis is often touted for his character work, but he fails to effectively dig into any of the problems that arise in this issue.

Nico Leon is a very technically sound artist, but he retreads old territory. Instead of making his own mark on Miles Morales and his unique cast of characters, Leon stays excruciatingly in his lane and only recreates a style similar to artists that have preceded him. His best work comes in the opening pages, where an action scene with a nightmarish version of the Hulk enables him to be more dynamic with panels and page layouts than the rest of Bendis’ extremely decompressed script allows. It’s frustrating, because Leon’s character work is exemplary, but it’s hard for the characters to have much energy when it takes them three panels to do any action just so they can spout a paragraph’s worth of dialogue. But that all said, it’s hard to really fault Leon too much in this one. He does his job effectively and Marte Gracia’s coloring brings out the best in his expressive work.

Brian Michael Bendis is clearly the architect of the Marvel Universe at this juncture, but his books aren’t always worldbeaters. After so many years with certain characters, maybe it’s time for fresh perspectives to inject them with some sense of urgency rather than trapping them in a seemingly endless cycles of inciting incidents followed by half-hearted rumination. Bendis doesn’t ask bad questions or even the wrong ones, but he’s not concerned with answering them, and in doing so takes agency away from his characters but also his artists. Kudos to Nico Leon and Marte Gracia for at least making this book look like a Big Two comic book - it’s not easy to find interesting ways to draw talking heads. But if characters are going be the core of an issue like this, the creative team, editors included, need to make sure that meaningful work is being done.

Credit: DC Comics

Gotham Academy Annual #1
Written by Brenden Fletcher and Becky Cloonan
Art by Adam Archer, Mssassyk, Michael Dialynus, Chris Wildgoose and Sandra Hope
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Gotham Academy Annual #1 is, creatively, an all-hands-on-deck affair, as the numerous writing and art credits attest. Though the comic’s flaws come mostly from the incongruent feel of some parts of the book, when the team gets everything lined up with the same goal, the result is equal parts charming, fun and even suspenseful. The strengths of this annual far outweigh its flaws, and the comic succeeds in creating both a jumping-on platform for new fans and a fun, if inconsequential 40-page romp for enthusiasts from the New 52.

Perhaps Gotham Academy Annual #1’s most interesting characteristic is the benching of series protagonist Olive Silverlock. Instead, writers Brenden Fletcher and Becky Cloonan follow broody goth Pomeline Fitch and the fast-talking, lock-picking Colton Rivera as they split up to pursue different theories as to what is causing illness that has befallen Olive, as well as the nature of a shadowy figure seen fleeing the school’s bell tower. In a neatly mirrored pair of pages, the theories are laid bare. Pomeline, the Gotham Academy pupil most acclimated with the occult - immediately believes vampires are on the prowl, a theory brilliantly rooted in her character, while Colton has reason to believe that it is all the work of a mad scientist with a grudge: visiting lecturer Professor Derek Powers. If that name doesn’t immediately ring a bell to Batman Beyond fans, it will eventually.

The comic makes a pretty bold stylistic choice at this point. When Colton and Pomeline split up, their respective narratives are drawn in very different styles. Colton’s most closely resembles the ultra-sleek aesthetic of Gotham Academy’s house style, while Pomeline’s gets a rougher pulp-comic style that perfectly works for her vampire hunt. While these respective styles work in the context of their independent narratives, it pulls the reader in a lot of directions very quickly. The earlier portions of the split are the weakest of the book. This is exaggerated by just how strong the artwork for the rest of the issue is, and it largely corrects itself as the two threads progress. Colton’s story in particular gets some of the best panels in the entire comic — the art switches angles drastically as the characters investigate a beating heart coming from under the floorboards. The single strongest piece of art this month happens during this sequence, revealing a heart ingrained into the cogs of a clock.

Ultimately, Pomeline and Colton are both right and both wrong. There really was a vampire, but the large object carried from the bell tower wasn’t a coffin — it was a clock that held the vampire’s heart. As for the mysterious figure fleeing the tower? Colton was spot-on. It turns out Derek Powers is evil and wants to kill Warren McGinnis, because Derek Powers is Blight, one of the strongest foes that Warren’s son Terry will ever face as Batman. If you are familiar with Batman Beyond and Terry’s rogues gallery, this is broadcast pretty loudly early on. (There’s even a few panels of Blight’s irradiated frame early in the comic.) If not, this is an exciting and largely unexpected cameo for Gotham Academy. While Gotham Academy takes place in a city protected by a notably grounded hero, the series itself has been largely fantasy and occult-centric. A time-traveling villain from DC’s ambiguously cyberpunk future is unpredictable, but in the best possible way.

People obviously read comics for all kinds of reasons. This is not a sticky, lore heavy affair, nor does it pretend it’s use of Gustav Decobra or Derek Powers is anything but fun and playful. Character is more important than plot throughout this annual - if you look at the plot too closely, things fall apart pretty quickly. The mechanics of the time travel aside, the mysterious illness is a bit of a plot contrivance. The character work here is what is remarkable, and justifies any plot element the comic might use. Jokes, decisions and even speculation are all rooted in who these characters are. Referential at every turn, and filled with character-driven humor, Gotham Academy Annual #1 offers a lot for DC diehards, but will prove enjoyable for even the most unfamiliar of readers.

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