Best Shots Reviews: INHUMANS VS. X-MEN #0, BATMAN ANNUAL #1, DOCTOR WHO: THIRD DOCTOR #3

DC Comics November 2016 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Inhumans vs. X-Men #0
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Kenneth Rocafort and Dan Brown
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

While Death of X put a spotlight on the death of one of Marvel's most iconic characters, it took place in a larger narrative context. It wasn't just Emma Frost's "Weekend at Bernie's." The entire mini-series served as a preamble to something that X-Men and Inhumans readers have been expected since the seeds of conflict were sowed between the two super-powered groups. Inhumans vs. X-Men serves as the connective tissue between that preamble and the two teams' inevitable conflict, as well as finally putting the post-Secret Wars 2015 time gap out of its misery.

A lot of superhero versus superhero plots ultimately boil down to some combination of miscommunication between factions and bastardization of one or more characters to create a conflict where one wouldn't naturally occur. Inhumans vs. X-Men appears unique in that regard, as it appears to be more a conflict of competing interests, with members of both sides making decisions rooted in who they are as characters. This works especially well for Emma Frost, who is the most interesting she has been in years in the wake of Death of X. The narrative of the issue is fractured, focusing primarily on Emma and Beast in what jarringly feels like two separate comic books - with Emma's half being better by far, thanks in large part to an unconvincing and irritating Hank McCoy in writer Charles Soule's one misstep in characterization in this book. Hank seems one-dimensional here, and his usual sense of idealism has been replaced with hubris. The number of times he uses the word "science" in the span of three pages reaches an almost comic level.

Using New Attilan resources to science his way to a cure for M-Pox rather than do away with the Terrigen cloud altogether, Hank bestows upon the Inhumans Cerebro-esque mutant tracking technology. The issue drops that detail with the lightest of touches, but potential repercussions that would have in a conflict between inhumankind and mutantkind makes it harrowing to read this early on.

Still, the idea of the X-Men losing this conflict wholesale and mutants being eradicated from the 616 seems unlikely. The issue leans toward the X-Men being in the right, or at least more in the right than the Inhumans, who come off as a little hawkish, especially as Medusa says, "We will not start that fight... but we must be ready to win it." While it's clear that the instigator of the conflict will be Emma Frost, Medusa's statement is indicative of both a lack of faith in Beast and an inherent prejudice of mutants. There is an expectation on her part that the mutants will attack. Beast is eavesdropping when she says this, and it's unclear which of those two aspects is more infuriating to him. Ultimately, it is scenes like this, as well as Beast's revelation that while the remaining Terrigen cloud is shrinking it is more pervasive in the atmosphere, that give his story in the comic a tremendous amount of intrigue. As long as Beast isn't talking, his arc in the comic book works.

Emma, on the other hand, has the best parts of the issue by far. Soule does incredible work capitalizing on the potential he has always had as a character and the depth that Death of X gave her. He manages to hone in on the wildcard element of her character that made her as engaging as she was during Grant Morrison's run. She has never been a simple character to define as far as morality is concerned, and making her the catalyst for war, is a stellar choice. Her meeting with Magneto, the other morally ambiguous X-character, solidifies this. Their actions are obviously going to have massive consequences for innocent mutants and Inhumans, but it's clear that they aren't representative of what all mutants want in the way that Medusa feels representative of the Inhumans.

Emma's actions in Death of X also call into question the reality of her actions. She has the ability to manipulate the mutant community en masse, and not knowing if or when that will happen is exciting. While this side of the story is the stronger of the two, the breaks in it feel incredibly random, which is a major contribution to how jagged this issue feels at times. This jagged feeling is far and away the largest flaw.

The events leading to the inevitable all-out battle are already being handled better than they were in both Civil Wars, and immensely better than Avengers vs. X-Men. The issue is also successful in sowing the seeds for rich thematic content throughout the series. The stakes of this being an issue of extinction for the mutants against the issue of religion and culture for the inhumans is fascinating, if only lightly touched on in this book.

Kenneth Rocafort's artwork is outstanding throughout the book. He plays with angles a lot, and in the hands of a lesser artist, this would feel like a comic book adaptation of Battlefield Earth. Fortunately, Rocafort's attention to detail and distinctive style manage to avoid that and give the book a unique look. The quality of his art in this book really gives it the feel of a major and important event. Dan Brown's coloring is another strong contribution to the issue. While his coloring of characters is serviceable and never distracting, it shines in its subtlety. Nearly every panel with a backdrop has a pleasant gradience that gives the already dynamic art a more interesting texture.

This is essential reading for those who are not only interested in the upcoming event but also readers who were left reeling from last week's Death of X #4. While the plot is structurally flawed, its character-driven roots are not only commendable but necessary given the insane straddling of two arcs that this issue needs to accomplish. The natural progression of every character into where they need to be for the rest of the series makes the rest of the event much more interesting than it seemed when it was announced.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman Annual #1
Written by Tom King, Scott Snyder, Ray Fawkes, Paul Dini, Steve Orlando and Scott Bryan Wilson
Art by David Finch, Gabe Eltaeb, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire, Neal Adams, Riley Rossmo, Ivan Plascencia, Bilquis Evely and Mat Lopes
Letters by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Imagine it’s December 24 - Christmas Eve. You’re cozied up on the couch as the clock approaches midnight. Suddenly, you hear the faint sound of footsteps coming from your snow-covered roof. Is it jolly old Saint Nick? Fat chance; this is Gotham, so you know the man on your roof is the Dark Knight, who doesn’t allow the holiday cheers to prevent him from watching over his city. Now that you know you can rest easy, why not open up a stocking stuffed with yuletide tales featuring the Caped Crusader?

Indeed, Batman Annual #1 is a gift wrapped by some of the greatest modern Batman storytellers and a plethora of talented artists that tie the package together like a shiny red bow. Typical of most annuals, the issue is presented in an anthology format, containing five short stories tied together by the overarching theme of the holiday season.

The book opens with a story by written by Tom King, with art by David Finch, and colors by Gabe Eltaeb. In this story, titled “Good Boy,” King retells the origin of Ace the Bat-Hound, retconning his classic roots from 1995's Batman #92. In a stellar display of sequential storytelling, King and Finch shows Alfred attempt to train the untamed beast as Batman works away at his computer, with caption boxes displaying the progression of time from one panel to the next. Alfred’s failure to soothe the savage beast, coupled with the humorously quintessential dialogue from Batman make this one of the highlights of the story. The true home run, though, comes on final page, as we reach Christmas day. Here, King reveals Alfred’s months-long plan was to give Bruce a gift he never knew he wanted, as he bonds with his canine companion. Even the World’s Greatest Detective is oblivious to Alfred’s intentions, as the Butler bites his tongue when Bruce says, “Can’t help but notice, Alfred. No gift from you this year.”

Despite the exceptional work Mikel Janin is doing on King’s latest Batman arc, it’s great to see Finch back in action on pencils and inks. Pulling no punches, Finch hits hard right at the start with an incredible splash page showing a ferocious Ace going straight for the Caped Crusader’s jugular. The deep scarlet blood spewing from Ace’s mouth contrasts perfectly with the pale blue saliva projecting from Batman’s as he screams out in agony, thanks to Finch’s delicate linework and Eltaeb’s palette selection.

“Good Boy” is the stand-out story in Batman Annual #1, but coming in at a close second is “Silent Night,” written by Scott Snyder and Ray Fawkes, with art by Declan Shalvey, and colors by Jordie Bellaire. The title is fitting, as Batman encounters an unprecedented moment of respite on a snowy night in Gotham. When he is alerted of a possible terrorist attack, the ever-prepared Caped Crusader is bewildered to find the suspects are merely street performers putting on an impromptu show, much to the delight of the citizens of Gotham.

Snyder and Fawkes do an outstanding job humanizing Batman; depicting him as humbled by his fellow man, not burdened by them. As the stoic Dark Knight smiles in approval, he receives another alert, thus closing the curtain on his brief moment of rest. Still, even in returning to his vigilance, it was great to see his faith in the good of humanity momentarily restored.

If you enjoy the art in the back-up stories from Snyder’s All-Star Batman, you certainly won’t be disappointed with the imagery in “Silent Night,” either. Shalvey and Bellaire are a perfect pairing, with Shalvey’s balanced layouts setting the stage for Bellaire’s contrasting cool hues to light up the page.

From “Silent Night,” we move to “The Not So Silent Night of the Harley Quinn.” Written by Harley Quinn co-creator Paul Dini, with art by Neal Adams, this story is definitely Batman Annual #1’s Ghost of Christmas Past. The title is a clear play on “The Silent Night of the Batman” from Batman #219, which Adams penciled back in 1970. In fact, Harley even calls out Batman’s out-of-character Christmas caroling with the GCPD from that issue after the Dark Knight tells her he doesn’t sing (“I heard you once spent a whole Christmas Eve signin’ your guts out with the cops”). Adams does a great job updating his classic style, giving it more of a modern look and feel. His vibrant palette selection is a welcomed addition to this Christmas story, and the blue cape and cowl is another fun callback to his earlier work.

In “Stag”, written by Steve Orlando, with art by Riley Rossmo, and colors by Ivan Plascencia, we’re given a story that features Minister Blizzard attempting to take out Barry O’Neill. After making the save, there’s a nice exchange between Bruce and Duke Thomas, as Bruce dwells on his ability to fight everything except mortality. As the story closes, we’re teased with an intriguing and ominous new villain, and a gruesome death that’s sure to hit Bruce hard when he learns of it.

Rossmo’s thin, scratchy line work lent itself well to “The Night of the Monster Men,” but doesn’t quite have the same appeal in this story. The debate over long versus short ears on Batman’s cowl is null and void, as they’re almost non-existent in some panels. Furthermore, the depiction of facial features leaves some characters resembling marionettes. However, Plascencia’s use of tranquil pinks and purples, particularly in Batman’s cape, are perfect, setting the tone as the Dark Knight calms the storm of Blizzard’s attack.

The final chapter of Batman Annual #1, “The Insecurity Diversion,” is written by Scott Bryan Wilson, with art by Bilquis Evely, and colors by Mat Lopes. In this story, a Christmas party at Arkham Asylum inevitably leads to an inmate’s escape. After a brief cameo by Scarecrow, the tale ends with the villains in a state of paralysis thanks to a nerve toxin deployed by Batman.

“The Insecurity Diversion” has a solid foundation, but it’s definitely the weakest of the five chapters, largely due to an abrupt ending that doesn’t quite feel complete. Couple this with the fact that it’s the final portion of the anthology, and you’re left with a conclusion to Batman Annual #1 that doesn’t exactly stick the landing. Likewise, Evely’s imagery isn’t quite up to par with what the artist has done in the past. It’s good, but some of the line work feels rushed, and the balance is thrown off in places by panels overcrowded with word balloons. Lopes’ colors help alleviate some of these artistic woes, though, especially the gorgeous pink aura projecting onto Batman’s costume as he glides through a cloud of fear gas.

For every PlayStation or iPhone under the Christmas tree, there’s sure to be an ugly sweater or a package of socks not far behind. With Batman Annual #1, you need to be willing to take the great with the not-so-great because overall, this is a very enjoyable holiday-themed Bat-book. Is it essential Batman reading? No, but it certainly has some remarkable moments, a nice dose of nostalgia, and is sure to put you in the holiday spirit.

Credit: Arianna Florean (Titan Comics)

Doctor Who: The Third Doctor #3
Written by Paul Cornell
Art by Christopher Jones and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
Published by Titan Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

In Doctor Who: The Third Doctor #3, Paul Cornell and Christopher Jones make great use of the Doctor's two strongest aspects: his history and his compassion. Still traveling through the candy-coated wonderland that is Jo Grant’s mind, the Doctor finally gets to the bottom of why the micro machines are attacking. He does this not by fighting, or by some convoluted plan, he does it simply by talking, continuing the franchise’s commitment to placing intellect and reason over violence.

Jones and colorist Hi-Fi continue to revel in the swinging 1960s aesthetic and tone of the title, punctuated by expressive screen-accurate character models and plenty of detailed classic sci-fi sets. Armed with a cliffhanger sure to make classic Whovians giddy with excitement, Doctor Who: The Third Doctor #3 continues to stand as a worthy addition to Titan Comics’ classic Who line.

Picking up directly after last issue’s cliffhanger, Paul Cornell wastes little time getting to the heart of the matter; and what a big heart it is. Focusing on the Doctor and Jo as they trek through her mind, Cornell hits the ground running. However, instead of focusing on the science fiction trappings or high adventure that made previous issues so fun, Cornell instead puts a spotlight on the Third Doctor’s poetic soul hiding underneath his gruff, karate-chopping exterior.

Engaging in a parley with the mind of the micro machines that have taken residence in Jo’s mind, the Doctor simply talks to the creatures, sussing out exactly why they are here and what they want beyond their initial violent outburst. Coupled with the seriously great cliffhanger Cornell deploys at the end of issue that is way too good to give away here, The Third Doctor #3‘s focus on the Doctor’s inherent goodness, no matter the incarnation, and his deep love for his friends cuts right to the quick of what has made franchise so endearing through the years. Cornell also starts to strip away all the posturing veneers of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, highlighting the man underneath the waistcoats and ruffles in a way the TV serials never did. It's these emotions and Cornell’s deep well of classic Who knowledge that makes The Third Doctor #3 a standout issue.

Also helping this issue standout is the continually impressive artwork of Christopher Jones and the rich colors of Hi-Fi. Bouncing from the dreamlike setting of Jo Grant’s mind and the sterile UNIT HQ, Jones keeps the visuals firmly locked in the tone of the original serials, backed by the metallic colors of Hi-Fi. But while the art team keeps the issue looking like the old show that doesn’t keep Jones and Hi-Fi from delivering a rousing showstopping two-page splash detailing a showdown between the Master and the Doctor. Anchored by large profile shots of the two Time Lords, Jones spreads their sparring across the pages, carefully drawing the reader’s eye across the page with Hi-Fi’s pale blues poured across the background with spikes of hunter green and deep crimson throughout in the form of the Master and the Doctor’s costumes. While the marquee name for fans is still Paul Cornell, Christopher Jones and Hi-Fi are quickly proving that they are the real breakout stars of The Third Doctor.

Though the Third Doctor is best known for things like his hand-to-hand combat and his beloved Bessie, Doctor Who: The Third Doctor #3 shows that the Doctor is still the same compassionate Time Lord we all know and love even when he is chopping necks and giving the Brigadier grief. Paul Cornell, drawing from a vast font of canonical knowledge and emotional intelligence, turns in his most pathos filled issue to date while keeping the fun and action of the series intact. Helping keep that action on point is the art team of Christopher Jones and Hi-Fi who continue to improve with each issue, giving the series a slick vintage look filtered through a vibrant lens. Strengthened by heart and engaging artwork Doctor Who: The Third Doctor #3 is a treat for both the eyes and mind.

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