Best Shots Reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE #9, DR. STRANGE #14, SUICIDE SQUAD #6

Marvel Comics November 2016 cover
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #9
Written by Bryan Hitch
Art by Neil Edwards, Daniel Henriques and Tony Avina
Lettering by Richard Starkings and Comicraft
Published by DC Comics
Review by Jon Arvedon
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Despero, the Anti-Monitor, Darkseid: it’s names like these that typically warrant the Justice League being called to action - threats of earth-shattering proportions, that leave the very fate of humanity itself hanging in the balance. More often than not, since first assembling on page in March of 1960, the Justice League has overcome such obstacles. Still, even in victory, there are casualties. The loss of a loved one in the crossfire of a battle for the greater good was seemingly all it took to light the fuse of a former computer hacker, as his virtual attack continues to play out in the pages of Justice League #9.

Since the relaunch of Justice League in the DC "Rebirth" era, Bryan Hitch has been taking an interesting approach with the series. While the "New 52" run by Geoff Johns saw the League face notorious foes such as Darkseid and the Crime Syndicate, Hitch has been introducing different kinds of opposition to test his iteration of the team. The computer virus attacking the League’s technology, including Simon Baz’s power ring, is an intriguing plotline that mirrors the real-world fear of what would happen if we were to suddenly lose control of the very things we’re most reliant on.

The story also presents the opportunity for Hitch to explore the League from a different angle than we’re traditionally accustomed to. Rather than storming the gates of Apokolips to confront their enemy, the final page sees hacker James Palmer’s son answer a knock at the front door of their quaint, suburban home. Upon opening the door, the boy finds the entire Justice League, sans Superman, on his front steps (“Is your dad in?” chimes Batman). This moment is the proverbial icing on the cake, serving as a prime example of Hitch’s ability to balance a story with both large and small-scale implications.

The strong character beats and team dynamic further solidify the framework of the narrative, and each player is given time to shine without jockeying for position. The exchanges between Flash and Aquaman are fun, and it’s great to see them showcase their specialties as they both take to the water, with Aquaman diving deep below while Flash races across the surface. Batman, although separated from the rest of the team, displays his quintessential deductive skills, and meanwhile, Cyborg has a stand-out moment of his own, spitting in the face of an existential crisis (“I’m a man… first… and I’m not going to be controlled by the rest of me…”).

Despite the compelling nature of the story, what causes this issue of Justice League to suffer is the imagery. Neil Edwards’ art, although adequate, struggles to keep up with the pace of Hitch’s writing at times. The result of this is awkward proportions, visuals that feel a bit too sketchy, and panels that aren’t quite in sync with the script. For example, on the first double-page spread, we see one of Baz’s monstrous constructs attacking Wonder Woman, with a massive green fist which seemingly planted a punch square on the Amazon Princess’ chin. Aside from the proportion and angle of Diana’s legs feeling unnatural, the overall pairing of the scenario, dialogue and facial expression don’t have a consistent flow from a sequential art standpoint.

While this sort of disconnect is limited, it’s the aforementioned facial expressions that prove to be the most distracting aspect of the issue. To Edwards’ credit, the look on Alfred’s face when he calls out to Bruce in the rubble of the Batcave perfectly captures the emotion and gravitas of the situation at hand. However, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Aquaman come off as though they’re screaming out in anger in most panels. Couple this with Daniel Henriques’ thick inks, which overpower the expressiveness of the characters’ eyes, and you’re left with visuals that feel rather one-dimensional.

From a color perspective, there’s no denying that Tony Avina has talent, but once again, there are some questionable aesthetic choices. The traditional dynamic green hue of the Green Lantern constructs are warmed with a slight yellow tinge, radiating outwards to mask the vibrant reds and blues of Wonder Woman’s costume. Likewise, Flash and Aquaman also appear largely de-saturated for a majority of the issue.

If you give a chef Kobe beef, caviar, German chocolate and high-end tequila, chances are they can make a dish that has some satisfying aspects, but ultimately, there’s going to be some things that taste weird together. That’s essentially what you get with Justice League #9, a book that is made up of some truly excellent ingredients that don’t combine to make a consistent dish. Hitch’s story is captivating, and the art team is capable of some amazing work, which there is traces of throughout the issue. Unfortunately, the aesthetics fall short in comparison to the narrative, leaving you with a book that is by all means good, but certainly not great.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Doctor Strange #14
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Chris Bachalo, Al Vey, John Livesay, Victor Olzaba, Tim Townsend, Wayne Faucher, Antonio Fabela and Java Tartaglia
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Doctor Strange might eat hell for breakfast — but what happens when he ingests an actual demon? Trapped inside an evil mystic diner by the sorceress Satana, Stephen Strange has his work cut out for him, and while this issue isn’t quite as serious-minded as “The Last Days of Magic,” writer Jason Aaron and artist Chris Bachalo do some fine work pitting the Sorcerer Supreme against a wild and weird threat.

Even though Bachelo’s artwork is sharply-rendered and oftentimes imbued with a sense of menace, Aaron’s script has a bit of whimsicality to it, as Satana holds Stephen hostage in her own little corner of Hell. Looking to make a name for herself with the souls of superheroes, Satana literally force-feeds Stephen a slab of demonic bacon, as we learn that magical indigestion is far worse than the real thing. But rather than take a more medically minded approach that we might expect from the onetime greatest neurosurgeon of the Marvel Universe, Doctor Strange #14 has a much simpler goal in mind: purge this gastroentological demon by any means necessary.

Despite some occasionally talky pages, Aaron’s plot is a straightforward one, evoking a little bit of his sophomore arc in Wolverine and the X-Men, featuring a similar journey into the human body, but the pacing in this issue does feel a little shorter than some of Aaron’s previous stories. That said, Aaron deserves credit for continuing to mine deep into the mystical corners of the Marvel Universe, not only bringing Satana back to the fold, but also giving a surprisingly sympathetic turn for Master Pandemonium, whose demonic hands are now being put to good use as a fry cook in Satana’s diner.

But this comic might ultimately rest upon Chris Bachalo, who teams up with his standard army of inkers and colorists to put this book to bed. Sometimes Bachalo has been criticized for counterintuitive layouts, and admittedly, the insane amount of rendering his pages require sometimes makes the visuals a bit hard to follow. (It’s very easy, for example, to tune out during the talk-heavy scenes with Satana, or to miss out on crucial details when Stephen makes a daring escape in his astral form.) That said, Bachalo’s energy is still enviable, particularly the amount of details he throws into cursed diner food or even the wide-eyed expressiveness he gives his characters, as even they aren’t completely inured to the weirdness in their midst.

Ultimately, Doctor Strange is taking a bit of a breather after its dynamic opening issues, and that’s okay — no comic should be expected to be pushing with that level of intensity month in and month out, because it’ll burn out both the readers and the creative team. Aaron and Bachalo’s latest arc is a screwy one, with the hell-diner setting being particularly kooky and weird, but that’s been a goal of many of Aaron’s previous superhero works — to push characters beyond their usual limitations and to take them into undiscovered territory. Given the talents of this creative team, Doctor Strange #14 proves to be yet another successful foray for the Sorcerer Supreme.

Credit: DC Comics

Suicide Squad #6
Written by Rob Williams
Art by Jim Lee, Scott Williams, Sandra Hope, Matt Banning and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by Pat Brosseau
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

And they thought life on the outside was hard. But Belle Reve might be more dangerous than ever before in Suicide Squad #6, as an alien artifact has driven everyone in the metahuman prison to kill — both inmates and employees alike. Not only does this premise work well for the morally compromised characters of Suicide Squad, but plays nicely to both the subversive humor of writer Rob Williams as well as the dynamic visuals from artist Jim Lee.

Spinning off last issue’s cliffhanger, the Suicide Squad is at each other’s throats, now that the Black Vault housing General Zod has been opened. Williams paces this issue nicely, as the chaos begins to trickle across the Belle Reve facility — Katana gets a real crowd-pleaser of a moment as she blocks a bullet with her namesake sword, while Amanda Waller gets particularly brutal as she headbutts someone into unconsciousness. (“Wanna find out who the biggest monster in Belle Reve really is?” Waller shouts, as carnage unfolds all around her.)

And in many ways, Williams’ premise might be one of the best fits for a Suicide Squad story in recent memory — they might all be bad guys, but usually the Squad is calling their own shots. Having them under the influence of mind control? That’s a whole new ballgame, as evidenced by Williams’ particularly smart twist involving Harley Quinn. Suddenly, the unpredictability gets ramped up to the extreme, with even the “good” members of the Squad suddenly turning homicidal, and it’s that chaos that gives Williams the freedom to further compound his antiheroes’ problems, bringing back previous developments with characters like General Zod and Captain Boomerang.

The battle royale also provides a fantastic platform for Jim Lee to strut his stuff. Teaming up with a trio of inkers, Lee’s edgy and hyperrendered style is a great fit for this Suicide Squad storyline, from small moments like Harley Quinn making a surprising transformation to the full-scale insanity of Deadshot and El Diablo fighting amongst a full-scale prison riot. While it’s disappointing that Lee only draws 12 pages of this issue, it’d be difficult to make the case that he and Williams don’t make these 12 pages count — the level of violence and foreboding that Lee packs into these pages is pretty amazing, and every time Williams ramps up the bloodshed, you can tell Lee is in for the ride.

Meanwhile, Carlos D’Anda handles the art duties for a backup story featuring Killer Croc, and while the actual story doesn’t always click, you can’t fault Williams or D’Anda in terms of sheer production values. D'Anda's artwork has a very clean and cartoony vibe that doesn’t quite mesh either with the grittiness of Killer Croc as a character or Lee’s art style elsewhere in the book, but at the same time, he swings for the fences hard by trying to make a young Croc look expressive and even sympathetic. That said, Williams’ story feels a little abrupt, with Croc’s turn into criminality stemming from a misunderstood childhood, rather than the sorts of compelling origins that typically characterize Bat-villains.

Ultimately, if there’s any one weakness to Suicide Squad, it’s that the series has to be truncated to accommodate for Jim Lee’s drawing schedule — but at the same time, looking at Lee’s pages, you might see that DC has a compelling point for the strategy. Suicide Squad #6 is the definition of “short but sweet,” with Williams and Lee bringing lots of action and violence to DC’s favorite crew of ne’er-do-wells, and proves to be one of the publisher’s most fun books of the week.

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