Hey hey, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you with the Best Shots review team! We're breaking the barriers of time and space for your reading enjoyment, taking a look at some of tomorrow's biggest releases. Best Shots has some sneak peeks at books from DC, Image, BOOM! Studios and Avatar, and that's just the beginning — we've also got a ton of back-issue reviews over at the Best Shots Topic Page. And now, let's take a one-way ticket to Gotham City, as we take a look at the latest issue of Scott Snyder and Francesco Francavilla's Detective Comics…
Detective Comics #875
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Francesco Francavilla
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
"There. There it is. You see it? He's going to kill someone tonight."
Every so often, you hear a writer discuss Gotham City as a character. How it seemingly soaks up people's nightmares and gives them form, turning suffering and anguish into killer clowns and fairytale characters with switchblades.
More often than not, that ends up just being talk. Not so with Scott Snyder and Francesco Francavilla.
Detective Comics #875 is by far Snyder's best work at DC Comics, one that rightly evokes shades of Batman: Year One and Gotham Central to tell a human, street-level story about doubt, suspicion and closing the door on some cold cases. As we follow Commissioner Gordon, who wrestles with the return of his sociopathic son James Jr., we breathe in the atmosphere of Gotham until it burns in our noses.
For me, reading Snyder's run on Detective Comics, I found that by and large, Commissioner Gordon has always stolen the show. He's got a more human, more relatable problem than Dick Grayson — and in this issue, Snyder is given carte blanche to show why everyone has been so afraid of James Gordon Jr., best known as the baby dropped from a bridge at the end of Batman: Year One. Snyder proves to be a master manipulator of the audience, building up suspicion and then turning you away to another scene just as you start to get suspicious.
There are a lot of good beats that Snyder establishes in just 22 pages. The first two pages alone, with Harvey Bullock delivering a prologue almost as a Greek chorus, have a real jazzy style that lays in the exposition pretty near flawlessly. There are sharp transitions, snappy dialogue, some interesting moments of real detective work. But this is all window-dressing to Gordon himself. Gordon, who sees snowfall not as natural beauty or detrimental to traffic, but as something altogether more sinister. "All I can think about is the footprint in the alley filling with white. The cotton thread on the windowsill loosening with every icy grip," he thinks. "Clues lost."
Uncertainty is the theme of this book, of the truth getting covered up by your own hopes and fears, and Francesco Francavilla pulls the work of his career telling that story visually. There's a splash page in this book where Gordon thinks about his son's troubled childhood — let's just say there's plenty of menace behind James Jr.'s blank spectacles, almost a Sin City kind of vibe. And design-wise, I love the subtle ways that Gordon and his son look so much alike, yet psychologically are so on different sides of the coin. Combine that with some extremely striking colorwork — particularly an orange that bleeds into red as Gordon panics about a possible killer in his midst — and this is going to be Francavilla's calling card in the comics industry for some time to come.
That said, this book might be at its highest point, but that doesn't mean it's completely flawless. For those wondering about the actual star of this book — Batman — well, you're going to find that he's only in one page. I don't particularly mind that — if anything, I think the appearance of Dick Grayson actually feels more obligatory than anything else, and Francavilla gets a little too loose with his figure work for my tastes on the big denouement of the book. There's also one continuity hiccup early on that jarred me a little, but at the same time, there's a lot of readers out there who won't notice that kind of ornamentation.
In any event, Detective Comics #875 is a fascinating read that hooks you in with Commissioner Gordon and makes you doubt everything you see. Who's afraid of James Gordon Jr.? And more importantly, why? Questions are answered, even as more questions arise from the aftermath. Like the Commissioner himself, we're frustrated that we can't go deeper into those blank eyes, to find out what made the son of a cop into something other than human. Instead, we're covered up, suffocated, blinded by uncertainty. Like snowfall in Gotham City.
Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker #1
Written by Joe Casey
Art by Mike Huddleston
Lettering by Russ Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
Between 1984 and 1986, Marvel and DC took two different approaches to “patriotic heroes.” Everyone remembers DC’s Comedian, the old school relic still trying to fight the Cold War like he fought World War II in DC’s seminal Watchmen but hardly anyone remembers Marvel’s own patriotic 80s era hero. No, not Captain America, but U.S. 1, the semi truck, over-the-road-hauling hero of his own short lived 1984 comic series. Back in the days when truck drivers were heroes (Big Trouble in Little China anyone?) and CB radios were sold in Radio Shacks, someone at Marvel through that combining truck driving and super heroes into a series would be the next big selling thing. Marvel tried to sell us a weird Reagan American dream in their comics while Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in Watchmen were blasting every slightly patriotic and jingoistic hero that was ever created. It’s been over 20 years since those American heroes appeared in comics so it feels like it’s time for Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston to remind us of all of them in the pages of Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker #1.
Casey and Huddleston’s Butcher Baker is the Comedian without the pathos or guilt that Moore and Gibbons put in that character. Casey and Huddleston unabashedly makes Butcher Baker an unlikeable character, retired to a strip club with all of the strippers and drugs he could want until Dick Cheney and Jay Leno are sent to tempt Baker out of retirement. All of Baker’s enemies are imprisoned but the American public is tired of paying for their imprisonment. Dick and Jay want Baker to destroy the prison that they’re all in, killing the inmates and relieving the American people of the burden of caring for these evil men. Charged with that mission, Butcher Baker jumps in his big rig semi and speeds down the road ready to take care of his old villains. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Only it’s not that simple. Taking a similar approach to Casey’s Godland or Charlatan Ball, the only rule that Casey and Huddleston are embracing is that there are no rules. For instance, on his way to the prison, Butcher Baker #1 turns into a mad homage to The Smokey Bandit and Cannonball Run when Baker crosses paths with a local cop over the excessive speed of Baker’s big rig barreling down the road. You can almost hear Jackie Gleason’s voice during these scenes. There’s even one panel where Huddleston makes Baker look like the Terminator. Casey and Huddleston have filled this book with a lot of 1980s love.
While the individual elements of the book feels like a collage of everything that Casey and Huddleston love from 20 years ago, Huddleston keeps the story moving along briskly with his energetic artwork and his sparse use of color. He makes each and every panel look as bold as Casey’s dialogue is. Huddleston’s art is as proud and arrogant as Baker is. If the character is booze fueled and drug filled, Huddleston’s art is equally charged. The book is filled with reds, whites and blues, a nationalistic looking book while Casey and Huddleston skewer every idea of what a real American hero is. Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker #1 is as subversive as anything that Casey has ever written but is quite explicitly charged as Casey attacks the idea of heroes in a way that he doesn’t in his other books.
Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker #1 is wrapped up in red, white and blue. The only color on the cover is Baker’s flag-like underwear and those colors are echoed repeatedly inside the book. Butcher Baker is a Reagan-era hero, a real American hero cut from the same cloth as John Wayne and Oliver North. And he drives a big rig. What’s more heroic or American than that? He’s like BJ and the Bear only without the bear. Casey and Huddleston take Moore and Gibbon’s Comedian and make him much more American, more outrageous and more guilty than he was in Watchmen, if that’s possible. Butcher Baker isn’t a character without teeth like Marvel’s U.S. 1, even if he does have a big rig like U.S. 1 did. If the Comedian was a British view of American heroes during the 1980s, Butcher Baker is a stunning indictment of how little we’ve grown in the past 20 years.
Written by David Lapham
Art by German Nobile
Published by Avatar
Review by David Pepose
I always wonder why Avatar doesn't see more success in today's marketplace. Even outside of its surprisingly high caliber of talent, I find that Avatar is just as much an aesthetic as it is a publisher. The world isn't just a scary place in an Avatar read, it's a damned butcher shop, where any object can be turned into a deadly weapon to eviscerate, disembowel and destroy in unorthodox, darkly comic ways.
And in many ways, that Avatar aesthetic is what propels Caligula, a revenge story set in the heyday of Rome. While the historical setting feels in many ways like just a cosmetic method of differentiating this book from some of the publisher's other Rube Goldberg-esque offerings of "found art" murder and mayhem, there's definitely an audience out there for this book — even if they don't know it yet.
To his credit, David Lapham gets you into the story quickly, and, like a nightmare, confirms every sinking suspicion you might have about the "good old days" of Rome under Julius Caesar. The heart of democracy also beat with sodomy, bloodshed and marauding politicians, and our protagonist, a young oil seller named Junius, gets thrown into everything very quickly. "To us Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus — Caligula — was Sidus, our star," he says. "Until the day he f—-ed my mother and cut off her head."
Under Lapham's guidance, you're suddenly very glad about living in the 21st century, where presidents can't just walk into your home and rape and murder your entire family (sometimes not even in that order). But that's the entree to a buffet of carnage and depravity — that aforementioned Avatar aesthetic at work. Lapham calls for some pretty twisted stuff, including severed heads, a graphic aftermath of a rape and murder, and even some bestiality to go along with the tiger mauling.
The real star of this book, however, is newcomer artist German Nobile. He's got a slight manga tinge to his character design, that hint of exaggeration to the eyes and anatomy, but I think that actually adds to Avatar's accessibility here — they're calling to a fan that might want the softer side of complete debauchery, with painted colorwork that actually classes up an exploitative revenge story. It's all very smooth-looking, and it's to Nobile's credit that he doesn't shy away from some of Lapham's gorier images — it's hard to look at the aftermath of Caligula's initial terrors, and when we finally get to the story's big twist, he really plays up the creep factor and laces it with an almost imperceptible sense of humor.
One thing I love about Avatar as a whole is that it never apologizes for the havoc it wreaks on readers' sensibilities. There's always an opportunity to show some blood and guts and slasheresque terror, whether its on the streets of New York or in the glory days of ancient Rome. Caligula does exactly what that Avatar aesthetic sets out to do, and it does it extremely well. Does it necessarily give a full entree into the story as a whole? As the final twist shows, probably not — and that second issue may be what really makes or breaks reader expectations for this book. But as far as some unadulterated bloodshed, Caligula is an enthusiastic, energetic exercise in mayhem.
Elephantmen: Man and Elephantman #1
Written by Richard Starkings
Art by Axel Medellin
Lettering by J.G. Roshell
Published by Image Comics
Review by Brendan McGuirk
If you still haven't tried your first issue of Elephantmen, you're running out of excuses. Richard Starkings has consistently found top-notch talent to bring his beastly detective noir series to life on the page, and he's given readers yet another jumping on point with this Man and Elephantman one-shot.
Man and Elephantman reads a tad like a What if? story, where we find our familiar and reluctant hero Hip Flask has shed his brutish coil in exchange for a normal, human one. His life, as we have seen it throughout the series, is relatively unchanged beyond Hip's own surface level. He has the same interactions with the same cast of characters, and approaches the world with the same cautious reserve. It shows the readers exactly what this series would look like if it took an outside-in approach to this world of man/ beast cohabitation, and in so doing shows just what a special book Elephantmen truly is.
Axel Medellin does phenomenal work rendering Man and Elephantman #1. His human Hip is completely recognizable as counterpart to the hippo version, his rendition of the women in Hip's life leave no doubt as to why Hip find himself so infatuated, and his normal interaction and action deliver with equal drama.
This series isn't just a clever gimmick. It isn't merely a strong hook. It's a rounded, fleshed out world with compelling characters that go beyond archetype, multilayered conflict, and a nonlinear plot that has unraveled slowly but ever-surely. The world of the Elephantmen is not merely a parable that seeks to serve as metaphor for one aspect of human society and cruelty, it is an expansive allegory touching on a wide range of aspects within the human condition. Isolation is first and foremost, but that experience branches out into all sorts of nuanced corners as the not-quite-humans reconcile their existence with the rest of civilization.
Don't feed the animals of Elephantmen, it's rude. But if you could spare a buck they would appreciate it.
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Marcio Takara and Nolan Woodard
Lettering by Ed Dukeshire
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Jennifer Margret Smith
Incorruptible has been a smart and highly enjoyable title since its inception, so it’s difficult to evaluate an issue that fails to live up to that well-earned reputation. Incorruptible #16 is not a bad comic, by any means, and by the standards of a lesser writer than Mark Waid it might even be considered an especially good comic. But compared to the series’ heights, this issue ultimately falls flat, turning what should be the strong conclusion to the latest arc into a story that feels more like filler, with questionable plot elements that crowd out all the interesting bits.
The strength of Incorruptible has always been the characterization of its protagonist, Max Damage, and that strength continues here. A few issues back marked a turning point for Max as he continued his path toward redemption even in the face of the Plutonian’s defeat, giving the readers their first indication that his villain-to-hero metamorphosis ran deeper than the need to fill the world’s heroic void and turn the tables on his former nemesis. That fascinating, layered characterization continues in this issue during the book’s better moments, as Max confronts the horror of his new sidekick’s turn to murderous behavior and must negotiate his affection for her with his rigid newfound principles. This highly visible negotiation may be the act that makes even the heroes of the Paradigm believe in Max’s about-face, and I look forward to seeing where Waid will take the character next.
Other highlights of the book include nice ensemble moments for the Paradigm cast (a team usually relegated to Incorruptible’s sister book, Irredeemable), fascinating ethical questions about the morality of punishing someone for an act that’s been undone, and developments regarding the evil conspiracy that has been steadily growing over the past few issues and has made the readers question the loyalties of the Plutonian’s ex-girlfriend (and Max’s newest ally), Alana Patel. These sparkling moments foreshadow a return to greatness with Incorruptible’s next arc, and this one subpar issue shouldn’t be enough to convince anyone to stop reading.
Ultimately, though, the book’s problems overwhelm its few bright spots. Too much of the plot is given over to a one-off problem the heroes have to stop, a fairly predictable problem that incorporates humor that is both vaguely offensive (haha, isn’t it funny that unattractive people sometimes have sex lives?) and tonally discordant with the rest of the book. The issue’s use of Shinto deities as a magical (rather than religious) power source is similarly problematic and out of place, and the treatment of mental illness in the Headcase plotline continues to be questionable in its accuracy and ethics, turning what started as post-traumatic stress disorder into something over-the-top and faintly ridiculous. Marcio Takara’s art, meanwhile, feels rushed and ragged here; it’s normally a highlight of the book, an angular, kinetic style reminiscent of Francis Manapul, but here it’s mostly indistinct and marred by uncharacteristically dark colors.
These complaints may seem minor individually, but they take up the vast majority of the issue’s pages, leaving little room for the book’s more successful and interesting components. As a result, the lovely cathartic moment at the end of the issue feels unearned, casting the entire arc in a different, more negative light. I still love Incorruptible and remain excited for its future, but issue 16 proves that even a writer as experienced and revered as Mark Waid is still capable of a misstep from time to time.