Best Shots Reviews: PAPER GIRLS #11, HULK #2, SUPERMAN #16, BALTIMORE: THE RED KINGDOM #1

Image Comics February 2017 cover
Credit: Image Comics

Greetings, ‘Rama readers! Best Shots grows by one this week, as Kat Calamia from The Marvel Report joins the team! Let’s give a big Internet welcome for Kat while we let Pontificatin’ Pierce Lydon start the column with the latest issue of Hulk

Credit: Marvel Comics

Hulk #2
Written by Mariko Tamaki
Art by Nico Leon, Dalibor Talajic and Matt Milla
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

 

It feels strange to describe a Hulk comic as understated, but the work that Mariko Tamaki and company are putting out here is just that. In the aftermath of the traumatic events of Civil War II, Jen Walters is trying to put her life back together, and that means the same thing that it does for most of us. She’s going back to work. She’s trying to fall back into a regular routine. She’s trying to find out what normal means for a woman who can transform into a giant green rage monster. There’s a lot of power in that story, and Tamaki is slowly uncovering it. Nico Leon and Dalibor Talajic’s simple linework adds some comforting familiarity to the proceedings. After the bombast of a huge event, it’s easy for creative teams to get too caught up in trying to go even bigger but thankfully, this one avoids that pitfall.

This is a story about trauma and anxiety. It’s a story about mental health and self-preservation. It’s a story about moving on and pushing forward. And Tamaki makes it very clear that none of that is easy to handle. Jen Walters takes comfort in going back to work because she understands what is expected of her. Tamaki chooses to frame the issue around Jen’s inner monologue, helping us as readers understand that even something as simple as picking up a snack on the way to help a client is a meaningful and intentional attempt at practicing self-care.

That sounds heavy, but it’s not all like that. This is still a superhero comic, and while Tamaki wants to tackle a relatable issue, she also peppers in a good bit of humor. I don’t think this book is particularly fun but it is an honest look at what it means to deal with anxiety and how that affects the people around you. It’s far reaching. It’s not something that you can just get over, and you never know when something seemingly simple might set it off. There may not be much punching or traditional superheroics in this issue, but Tamaki proves that while the Hulk has always been an easy metaphor for rage and anger, the character works just as well for stress and anxiety.

Nico Leon and Dalibor Talajic keep things moving and really don’t try to do too much. Compared to Jen’s last solo outing, which featured art by Javier Pulido and Ron Wimberley, this book looks positively pedestrian. But it still looks good. There’s a certain solitude in the pages here. Jen is alone with her thoughts for most of the book, and the art team delivers solid expression work to help underline what she’s thinking. Her anxiety attack is juxtaposed with her client being harassed by their landlord and it’s there that we start to really see how anxiety informs the work. The art needs to be clean and clear to provide contrast to the tone of the story. It’s a clever choice by the editorial team to pair this art team to this story and one that certainly shouldn’t go unnoticed. Even Matt Milla’s color palette avoids most of Hulks trademark greens for more muted tones, so anytime that we see an inkling of that brighter green, it has a lot more impact.

This may not be the story that you’re looking for if you’re a Hulk fan. But then again, Hulk #2 isn’t really a story for traditional Hulk fans. Tamaki and her art team are trying to tell a story about coping with reality. This might be an imaginary story but the weight of the proceedings is very real. Jen Walters is coping with loss in the same ways that the creators themselves and likely the readers of this book do as well. Hulk comics don’t usually have a reputation for being all that cerebral, but this creative team saw that as a challenge. They’re finding out what the Hulk means in 2017, and it’s a captivating new exploration.

 

Credit: DC Comics

Superman #16
Written by Peter J. Tomasi amd Patrick Gleason
Art by Tony S. Daniel, Clay Mann, Seth Mann, Sandu Florea and Dinei Ribeiro
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Kat Calamia
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

 

Superman is a beloved superhero by many — he’s an American icon, for Pete’s sake! But when all the Supermen and Superwomen across the multiverse are thrown into one story arc, can this become too much of a good thing? Unfortunately, all signs point to yes in Superman #16, the disappointing third and last part of “Multiplicity,” as Justice League members from across the multiverse gather to defeat a vaguely developed villain.

That’s not to say that “Multiplicity” isn’t an ambitious story arc, as writer Peter J. Tomasi follows up on threads from Grant Morrison’s Multiversity. Yet this arc has yet to generate the buildup needed to gather these heroes from different dimensions to DC Rebirth Superman’s world, making the rest of the story arc falter. Indeed, “Multiplicity” feels too overwhelming to enjoy, especially if the reader hasn’t read Multiversity. There’s some interesting developments presented in this arc, but three parts just isn’t enough room to tell what could have been a massive Crisis of infinite Supermen.

Instead, “Multiplicity” stumbles as a story when it tries to connect to the wider scope of the mystery behind the world of “Rebirth.” Superman #16’s main villain explains that he’s stealing the Supermen and Superwomen’s powers to save his own world from a bigger threat – doom is coming for the multiverse, and he will protect his world at all costs. This could have been a very interesting scene if the villain for this arc was better built up in the previous issues of Superman, but as it stands, the audience has no emotional connection to this villain because the reader has never been introduced to his world. Why should we care about this character?

With so much riding on the villain to support the story, most of the characters in this story fell flat because of their limited panel time, but the character that stuck out the most in this issue was Earth-36’s Flash – Red Racer. The Flash is a superhero who is no stranger to being the center of attention for comic book stories dealing with the multiverse. It was fitting to see this version of the Flash use his connection to the speed force to save the Supermen and Superwomen. Capping off the issue with a nice visual call back to Barry Allen’s sacrifice in Crisis on Infinite Earths, it’s only this brief bit of symbolism that provides much spark for this issue.

Similar to the story, the pencils from Tony S. Daniel and Clay Mann feel underdeveloped. The conclusion of “Multiplicity” tries to make the battle feel epic by adding as many Supermen and Superwomen as they can fit into a panel. But adding so many characters doesn’t make the scene feel stronger — instead it only brings for a lack of detail in the backdrop. Meanwhile, the intense red beams colored by Dinei Ribeiro overshadow the pencils, making the ending battle between the main villain and all the multiverse’s Super people visually boring. A lackluster battle made for an even less satisfying villain.

In concept, bringing every Super-person into a Superman book should be a fun adventure, but sadly “Multiplicity” tells its story with such super-speed that readers might struggle to catch up. Three issues were far from enough to tell the heavy story Tomasi tried to build in this short story arc, making this conclusion fall short from its iconic inspirations.

 

Credit: Image Comics

Paper Girls #11
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Image Comics
Review by Kat Calamia
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

 

“Trust me, Erin, there are worse nightmares than whatever Land of the Lost we’re stuck in.” – K.J.

After a few months’ hiatus, Paper Girls returns with a strong, emotionally driven story that continues to develop Brian K. Vaughan’s mysterious world. Paper Girls #11 seamlessly introduces new characters to the story, while putting a much-needed spotlight on K.J.’s character after her absence in the second story arc.

Paper Girls is no stranger to biblical allusions, especially through dream sequences, dating all the way back to the first scene of Paper Girls #1, which featured a dream sequence with Erin alluding to Adam and Eve’s tree of knowledge. The opening scene in Paper Girls #11 explores the prejudice K.J. dealt with as a Jewish girl in her town, while also dropping clues about the bigger mystery Vaughan is building in this world. The river of blood pouring out of K.J.’s field hockey teammates’ mouths - alluding to the river of blood in the Book of Exodus – and the Holocaust survivor’s tattoo are just some of the pronounced religious symbolisms Vaughn utilizes within this dream.

The ending of K.J.’s dream may act as a clue to the bigger mystery, but also is used as a tool to learn more about K.J.’s character. After K.J. wakes up from her dream, she reveals to Erin that she saw her cousin drown when she was in first grade. This plot thread is later picked up when a mysterious bear-like creature pushes Mac into the river, and despite her fears, K.J. dives into the water to save her friend without hesitation. Paper Girls #11 helps the audience learn that K.J. has had a traumatic past, but that doesn’t stop her from being a courageous character.

This issue focuses on K.J.’s character, but Vaughan doesn’t forget to build the most intriguing aspect of Paper Girls – the mystery and creativity behind this world. The story introduces us to two new characters: a futuristic woman and a young girl with a baby on her back. Both of these characters have one thing in common: their connection to technology. The futuristic woman has a blaster with a familiar Apple logo, and the young girl has USB sticks and motherboards hanging like pendants on her necklace, making this story far more than it appears.

Vaughan has built an engaging and imaginative world through his writing, and Cliff Chiang is the perfect collaborator to bring this world to life through his artwork. In this issue Chiang does a great job at balancing action and emotions, which keeps the readers’ eyes engaged. The best example of this fantastic multifaceted use of his artwork is during the introduction of the girl with a baby on her back. Since the girl speaks a different language from our main cast, she communicates with the audience through Chiang’s use of facial expressions and movement.

Most of the scenes in Paper Girls #11 are set at night, but Matt Wilson’s coloring still brings a vibrant tone to the book, which I feel is one of the most attractive things about this series. Paper Girls doesn’t go the cliché route of the dark and grim when portraying their monsters, but instead uses bright colors to contrast the girls’ dark futures.

With Paper Girls #11, the series returns from its hiatus with a great start to its new story arc. Introducing new players to the story, Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang make sure to continue building up Paper Girls’ protagonists and mysterious world, delivering a coming-of-age story that relies on symbolism and character development to unravel their deep and imaginative world.

 

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Baltimore: The Red Kingdom #1
Written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Art by Peter Bergting and Michelle Madsen
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

 

The first issue of a final arc is one of the most pitfall-ridden things comic writers have to navigate. Do you try to hook the new readers and catch them up for this last hurrah? Do you ignore them and focus on the readers who have stuck with your world for years? Fortunately, with Baltimore: The Red Kingdom #1, veteran writers Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden have crafted an issue that straddles that line about as finely as it can be straddled, while Peter Bergting's art, which has been a highlight of the series since joining a few years ago, is fantastic throughout. This is both a worthy opener to a reliably entertaining series and a strong jumping-on point for people new to the series.

There has been a palpable darkness to the world that Mignola and Golden have crafted over the years, but Baltimore: The Red Kingdom opens on even bleaker circumstances. Europe has been ravaged by the monsters and occultists that serve the Red King, and the writers and Bergting are tonally in sync to reveal that this is a world without hope. This is perfectly represented in a scene in which the allied forces are charging into battle the Red King's forces, completely cognizant of the fact that the best they can hope for is to kill as many of their foes as they can with their dying breaths. Without that scene, the comic might have reached a tipping point for hopelessness. It adds a spirit of resistance the forces of good in the universe, but does so without weakening or diminishing the presence of the Red King in anyway. In the absence of Lord Henry Baltimore throughout this issue, Mignola and Golden leave us with a powerful message: things feel hopeless, but at least people are fighting back.

The narrative jumps between two primary threads. While the first deals with the front lines of the Red King's conquests, the second is considerably slower, but no less tense. Judge Althaus and the New Inquisition attempt to acquire information about Baltimore's whereabouts, having previously believed him to be dead. It's interesting to see something ordinarily categorized as an evil, like the Inquisition, repurposed in response to the physical threat that faces the world as opposed to an imagined spiritual threat. Context determines much of society, and Baltimore: The Red Kingdom #1 does a solid job of demonstrating how much things change when their context changes. The New Inquisition finds pagan allies not only acceptable but necessary for the fight against an ultimate evil. Rather than rallying to unify everybody with their believed universal good, their priority, and really all of Europe's priority, lies with stopping a universal evil.

Peter Bergting has several of the most memorable panels of the year so far in this one issue alone. The unsettling nature of the naked witches atop a wall with blood at their feet is chilling. Details are underdrawn just enough as to keep it from being gratuitous, but never so much that it takes away from the impact. The intense two-page splash in the first half of the book is an absolute feast of an image; one which shows the scope, potency, and variety of the Red King's forces. This gives the soldier's despair a real sense of urgency. All of this is further elaborated upon and refined by Michelle Madsen's colors. Red is obviously a focal color of the series, but it's not as abundant as it might seem. Madsen's use of the color, and in particular her skill in surrounding that color with shadow or other hues, makes every instance of red pop in such a way that it feels more prominent than it actually is.

There's not much to dislike in this issue. Sure, Baltimore isn't as fleshed out for newer readers as he probably could be, but the way that the characters talk about him properly sells him as a big deal. It trusts the reader's power of inference in that way, saving room for the storytelling that it does so well and the world-building that it makes seem so effortless. For fans of the series, Mignola's previous works, or even Seven to Eternity fans, this is a must-read. For anybody else, it is honestly still worth checking out.

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