Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN/THE SHADOW #1 (10/10), X-MEN: BLUE #2, More

Marvel Comics April 2017 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics

To me, my 'Rama Readers! It's me, Professor David Pepose here to usher in another round of reviews of this week's top titles, including a double shot of X-Men books. But first, we'll kick things off with a review of Batman/The Shadow #1 from rowdy Richard Grey

 

Credit: DC Comics

Batman/The Shadow #1
Written by Scott Snyder and Steve Orlando
Art by Riley Rossmo and Ivan Plascencia
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Of all the intertextual crossovers between the Dark Knight and his unlikely counterparts - be it Predator, Grendel, or even Tarzan - Batman/The Shadow is arguably the most appropriate. 1930s pulp hero The Shadow was hugely influential in the development of Batman, with co-creator Bill Finger on record as lifting elements of Shadow story for his first Batman script. Indeed, the character has worked his way into Batman lore under Denny O’Neil in the 1970s, and now another group of top-tier creators bring the nocturnal figures back together in a collaborative crossover between DC Comics and Dynamite. The results are seriously good.

Batman has faced some major city-shaking threats over the last few years, and one of the most pleasing aspects of this first issue is that it immediately reestablishes the co-lead as the World’s Greatest Detective. When a murder occurs in Gotham City, it’s not that unusual, although this one seems to be the doing of Lamont Cranston (a.k.a. the Shadow). As secrets are unveiled, including ones about Bruce Wayne, Cranston attempts to stop the Caped Crusader from learning all the things that “the Shadow knows.”

It’s very easy to simply put two characters in a room together and watch the sparks fly, but Snyder and Orlando are all about a story-first approach. It begins with the subtleties of an Arkham Asylum employee delivering meals, knowing that Harvey Dent likes stadium dogs from the Knights games, or that Mr. Freeze enjoys a kæstur hákarl (fermented shark) caught in below freezing 30.9 degree waters. More than that, he appreciates the respect of being called Dr. Fries.

The attention to detail extends to the rest of the issue, from interactions with Montoya to the callbacks to an opening scene with Henri Ducard peppering the issue. It’s a narrative that engages with the medium, and readers of that format, as much as it does with the case at hand. More than that, it’s a mystery that applies those principals for just the right levels of obfuscation. While we are looking for the meta references that Snyder and Orlando apply with surgeon-like precision, they magically misdirect us away from the bleeding obvious.

Riley Rossmo is one of the most unique visual storytellers working in the comics field today, and his work on Batman/The Shadow is in keeping with the outstanding pieces he’s delivered for Constantine: The Hellblazer and, naturally, Tom King and Orlando’s Batman. While not overtly supernatural, there’s a spooky vibe that assisted by Plascencia’s use of color. Making use of a wide color palette that keeps the shades muted to a pulpish noir, there’s a symbiotic movement to their work, whether it’s lithe Shadow or brickhouse of a Bruce Wayne in disguise. Tightly paneled action sequences give way to a splash page where the Shadow’s cape segues out into a multitude of ‘HA HAs,’ the iconic red of his costume dominating the page.

The joy of Batman/The Shadow is not just in the engaging story and the top-notch art that would make it a top pick on any given week. What Snyder, Orlando, Rossmo and Plascencia have created is a mystery wrapped in all those elements, one that draws you in with its flagship characters and holds you there with the promise of a rewarding riddle to be solved in future issues.

 

Credit: Marvel Comics

X-Men: Blue #2
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Jorge Molina and Matt Milla
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

I can’t believe it. It only took two issues but I think can finally say it without lying to myself or you, my adoring audience. I think the X-Men might actually be... good again? Scratch that. It’s probably too soon to tell, but one thing is for certain - X-Men: Blue #2 is a joyous celebration of everything that makes the X-Men tick. Cullen Bunn is working within the framework that made Chris Claremont’s career, but adding his own little flourishes to the plotting. And he’s got a fantastic artist in Jorge Molina to help carry the weight, which goes a long way to actually making this story feel like it matters.

Bunn’s most well-received work for Marvel to date would have to be the Magneto book he did a couple of years back, and he’s carried his affinity for the Master of Magnetism over to X-Men: Blue. In a universe that lacks a Charles Xavier, the ideological void has to be filled, and while we’ve seen Kitty Pryde taking up that mantle in X-Men: Gold and we’ve seen Magneto in a similar role in the past, it’s rare that we see two schools of thought cropping up around the same main idea that humans and mutants need to live in some sort of harmony. How Kitty and Magneto interpret Charles’ ideas we have yet to really see, but it’s definitely interesting to see them both start from the same place.

It’s really hard not to love Bunn’s take on the original five X-Men either. His Jean Grey is poised and in control. His Iceman is realistically dealing with a long-distance relationship. The tension between Beast and Cyclops is palpable. Scott is the character hewing most closely to the classic version of his character — his loss of identity due to no longer being the leader of the team is clear, but he still feels the need to speak with some authority. It’s been really fun to see how he bristles at the changes the rest of the team has gone through. Angel is the least defined of Bunn’s main cast for now, but that doesn’t mean that he’s completely sidelined. The biggest strength of Bunn’s book right now is that not only is he leaning into the melodrama that is essential to the X-Men, he’s also introducing mysteries that do not have clear answers just yet. It feels like it’s been awhile since we actually had questions that needed answering. Bunn is doing a great job building short scenes that are well-paced and amp up the intrigue in the book.

But this book would be nowhere without Jorge Molina’s art. There are some really moving, important moments in X-Men: Blue #2 that Molina is tasked with executing and he absolutely knocks it out of the park. I’ve mentioned his expression work and realistically rendered teenaged characters before and he still has not lost a step in that regard. This is a heavy issue for the X-Men. They are trying to reconcile what they know about Magneto with what they think Charles Xavier would want them to do. That’s no small task, and the weight is really on Jean’s shoulders. Molina puts her front and center as often as he can and balances out those big emotional moments with some fun light ones. Occasionally there is an odd page layout that makes a character kind of look like they’re floating but it’s not enough to distract from the reading. Overall, there’s a lot of care being taken by the artists that goes beyond the nuts and bolts of how comic book art is made. You can’t look at these pages and not feel for these characters - and that’s something that goes beyond just lines on a page.

X-Men: Blue #2 is the strongest of the new X-Men lineup so far. It’s a return to what makes the X-Men great: melodrama and intrigue buoyed by strong character work and effective, emotive art. And it’s becoming clear that Bunn is not satisfied to just riff on what Claremont did in the past. Instead, he’s taking the core approach from those books and applying it to the idea that he finds the most fascinating in the Marvel Universe. Magneto is a great character to have anchoring the title because he is so important to the legacy of the X-Men so this ends up being somewhat uncharted territory for the cast. Jorge Molina is helping Bunn build something that finally feels essential instead of gimmicky and if they continue down this path, there’s no reason that these creators won’t be remembered far past their years for making the X-Men a must-read in Marvel’s publishing line again.

 

Credit: Marvel Comics

X-Men Gold #2
Written by Marc Guggenheim
Art by Ardian Syaf, Jay Leisten and Frank Martin
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Mutant powers. Mutant factions. Mutant soap opera. It's all to protect a world that fears and hates them, baby, and it's that formula that Marc Guggenheim and Ardian Syaf lean into with their second chapter of X-Men Gold, a sophomore installment that reads even better than the first. While this book's debut was largely consumed by controversy, this issue shows this book can absolutely stand on its own artistic merits.

There's a nimbleness to Guggenheim's script that really adds some heft to this issue, as he's able to bounce from scene to scene while still building up some nice narrative momentum. With the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants on the prowl, Guggenheim gives us some nice superhero fisticuffs that are actually overshadowed by some great side plots, such as the Brotherhood mind-controlling Nightcrawler as they kidnap Old Man Logan (which is "a special kind of stupid," as Logan wryly points out later). What's great about these sequences is that Guggenheim seems to have really thought through these characters and their power sets, from Mesmero's Purple Man-style abilities to the way that Colossus and Prestige team up for their own unique twist on the Fastball Special.

But for my money, my favorite part of this issue is how Guggenheim also plays on very real-world emotions, as there's yet another political demagogue looking to make mutantkind into their latest scapegoat. It feels unfortunately all too timely to have scenes of mutants being brutalized in the streets or huddled in their homes worrying about state-sponsored deportation — and as Marvel's go-to minority metaphor, it feels right to have the X-Men stand on the forefront of civil rights for all people. Guggenheim even is able to tap into the foreboding Secret Empire event with a Steve Rogers cameo, showing that even the X-Men's onetime allies might not be able to help anymore. As always, the mutants' backs are against the wall, and you can see on Kitty Pryde's face the tension of knowing they have to both police and protect themselves without outside assistance.

Of course, there's still the elephant in the room — Ardian Syaf, whose career was immolated thanks to his controversial hidden messages in the first issue. While the backgrounds in this second installment seem squeaky clean now, you can't help but wonder where his trajectory could have gone, based on the strength of his artwork here. While there is a little bit of similarity in some of his characters' facial structures (particularly the noses), and sometimes characters like Logan wind up popping out with over-the-top muscles, for the most part Syaf's artwork actually looks incredibly solid — in particular, he's able to coax some genuine emotion out of characters like Kitty Pryde, who looks acutely aware of the responsibility resting on her shoulders. His take on Mesmero is also nicely haunting, even if his design is a little evocative of Brainiac, and he's able to really play up the acting in quiet scenes with Kitty and Peter.

If there's anything holding back X-Men Gold, it's that the "Back to Basics" approach can occasionally feel a little stagnating, that these characters are largely going through motions we've seen done before, leaving little room for innovation or genuine surprises. That said, given how shaky the X-Men have been over the past few years, it makes sense to play it safe for now, to reaccumulate some good will before trying another risky (and possibly franchise-breaking) twist. This may read as comic book comfort food, but there's something to be said for knowing the classics and being able to emulate them well. There's a lot to like in this solid second installment of X-Men Gold, which hopefully will continue its momentum moving ahead.

 

Credit: Archie Comics

Big Moose: Double Sized All New One-Shot
Written by Sean Ryan, Ryan Cady and Gorf
Art by Cory Smith, Matt Herms, Thomas Pitilli, Glenn Whitmore, Ryan Jampole and Kelly Fitzpatrick
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Archie Comics’ renaissance continues with Big Moose, a one-shot starring Riverdale’s resident jock. The anthology approach allows a bevy of creators to get in on the action to varying degrees of success but the overall result is a generally charming peek into Big Moose’s daily life. Sean Ryan, Ryan Cady and Gorf use Moose in different ways to riff a bit on who the character has been historically and how he has evolved over the years. For Archie fans looking for more light-hearted tales of teen drama, this issue is solidly in their wheelhouse.

Sean Ryan and Cory Smith’s story is up first, pitting Moose against his worsening hunger and the fact that he has no money to use at the vending machine. The conceit is really simple but it allows Ryan to have some fun with a character who’s a bit too dim to realize he’s getting a raw deal in his trade with Jughead. The joke mostly lands in the conclusion - Smith’s cartooning helps the humor really get across and his instincts regarding the physical comedy in the script play really well.

Ryan Cady and Thomas Pitilli dig a bit deeper into the psyche of the character. This is a story that shows how Moose juggles all the different parts of his like from his family to his girlfriend to football and school. Moose might not be considered one of the smarter characters in Riverdale but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a lot going on in his life. Cady’s narration can be a little overwrought at times, coming at odds with what we generally see from Moose (even from the previous story). While Archie’s relaunch has made its name on recontextualizing these characters, doing so in an anthology that features two pastiche stories makes for some dissonance with this more naturalistic take, even if Cady’s script is generally the best of the bunch. Pitilli's loose linework and more realistic take fits the tone of the story but it isn’t as strong as the other two artists in the book. His characters don’t have much consistency in their rendering and his expression work does the bare minimum to communicate certain emotions. If the art was stronger, the story itself would have a much more solid foundation to draw from to ground the story.

Gorf and Ryan Jampole round out the book with a story about honesty and treating people with dignity. Gorf’s script is mostly a dud. There’s a lot of “afterschool special”-style schmaltz in the world of Riverdale and it’s totally okay to lean into that, but it doesn’t make for a really compelling story here at all. It especially rings very hollow when it’s placed right after Cady’s story that sought to deepen our understanding of Moose. But Jampole’s art is definitely a saving grace. There’s a bit of manga influence in his linework and it makes for a really bouncy, emotive short story. Jampole has done a lot of work over on Archie’s Mega Man books, but hopefully this issue calls for an extended look at what he can do with a book set in Riverdale.

The Big Moose special is a fine issue for Archie fans, but it would have been stronger if it could decide what it wanted to be. Jumping between classic pastiches and more emotional, grounded storytelling takes away from the cohesiveness of the work. Is Archie truly looking to deepen this character’s core? Or do they want to celebrate his past? There are certainly ways to do both, but the clashing tones of these three narratives casts a wide aesthetic net that also feels destined to disappoint readers at least part of the time.

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