Best Shots Comic Reviews: BATMAN, AMERICAN VAMPIRE, More

Credit: Vertigo

Happy Monday, 'Rama readers! It was a big weekend at the movies, but now it's time to talk comics. Best Shots is bringing you back to Earth with a look at the latest issue of Batman...

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #21
Written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV
Art by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki, FCO Plascencia, Rafael Albuquerque, and Dave McCaig
Lettering by Nick Napolitano and Taylor Esposito
Published by DC Comics
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Review by Lan Pitts

When one thinks "Batman" and "origin story", most minds race right to Frank Miller’s classic Batman: Year One. It's been the one piece of Batman literature that most comic writers wouldn't dare tread upon, but here is Scott Snyder, given a clean slate to work with within the boundaries of The New 52, and doing his own thing while still paying homage to Miller's masterpiece.

The back and forth timeline is a little confusing at first, but an instant reread solves all that, and you get to see that Snyder is actually telling multiple stories in a single narrative. You have young Bruce who has yet to lose his parents, rebellious teenage Bruce who has an idea of who he wants to become, and Bruce as a fledgling Batman in a dystopian Gotham. All signs are pointing to a bigger picture down the road — add in the debut of a certain green-clad villain, and you have an entertaining read.

It's taken a moment to get used to Danny Miki's inks over Greg Capullo's pencils, but the difference is astounding. Miki has simplified Capullo's style and made it bolder and sleeker at the same time. The feathering from Bruce's abs to wrinkles in suits doesn't seem as heavy-handed as before. The issue as a whole is pretty low on action, but sets things up properly with Bruce's uncle Philip having to scheme against his nephew and the whole "why is Gotham an abandoned jungle" situation.

For the backup, we have Snyder and James Tynion IV showing reckless Bruce on his path to being a crime fighter, as he takes out a Spanish crime Don. We have hints of Thomas Wayne not being just a doctor, but a skilled mechanic so it's here we get the impression Bruce has been around some fast cars. And I mean fast. While he hasn't engineered his body to be a fighting machine, Bruce is clever in how he takes out the Don and walks away unscathed. American Vampire collaborator Rafael Albuquerque handles the artistic duties, along with colorist Dave McCaig. It's a short adventure, but with Albuquerque's intense line work, we're given a fast-paced sequence that supplies adequate action to where the main story was lacking.

Snyder has proven that his long arcs are worth the slow burn. Whether or not "Zero Year" will be constructed that way has yet to be seen, but the path laid out with Batman #21 gives out all the right vibes for a good time ahead.

Credit: Image Comics

Manhattan Projects #12
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Nick Pitarra and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

If you thought last month’s reveal was the end to Enrico Fermi’s story, you were wrong. Jonathan Hickman picks up exactly where he left off last month, except this issue is all about the big reveal, and it’s one that rewards longtime readers. The best mysteries are those you didn’t see coming, and Hickman definitely gives readers a reason to keep reading with the latest issue of Manhattan Projects.

Hickman divides the story between Fermi’s origin (as he has done previously with every other character) and his programming to take control of the moon base and to send a message to his home world. What’s more, the friendship built between Fermi and Harry Daghlian is decimated in this issue, much to my chagrin. The connection between the two characters was palpable and humanizing, and Hickman has really punched us in the gut with this latest change.

Plus, Fermi’s role in the entire story is greater than previously expected. Some of the most pivotal moments were in fact due to Fermi’s intervention, and seeing these moments through a new lens makes the series more layered. If you doubted that Hickman had a plan, this issue should correct that assumption. The only time the plot loses its thread is at the end when readers are forced to relive a previous moment but this time through Fermi’s alien eyes. I got a bit lost trying to follow the alien Fermi’s programming and the action occurring on the page, but this is the only part of the issue that lacks strong cohesion. The rest of the comic is fantastic.

Nick Pitarra and Jordie Bellaire also do some of their best work here. Humanizing the alien Fermi is not easy, but Pitarra pulls it off, especially when Fermi realizes how he ruined his friendship with Harry. Lush, solid inks help bring the visuals to life, and, Bellaire’s colors are detailed, especially in the flashbacks.

The strength of this issue is enough to keep me on board. The previous issue was one of the best and while I didn’t think Hickman could top it, he definitely does. Manhattan Projects is more planned that I originally thought, and I was taken by surprise with the direction of the story. I look forward to seeing what else Hickman has up his sleeve, especially if we can see more issues like this one.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic #8
Written by Heather Nufer
Art by Amy Mebberson and Heather Breckle
Lettering by Neil Uyetake
Published by IDW
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

With the conclusion of the second arc here, we are treated to what is probably the most epic issue of the series thus far. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic #8 certainly gives Pony fans a battle they soon won't forget, as well as some exploration to characters that are long overdue.

The idea of Nightmare Moon being more of an entity a la Parallax is interesting and having Rarity for a host makes it all that much fun/horrible. Rarity's bitter snark is blown up exponentially here as she tries to unleash the Nightmare Rule and conquer all of Equestria. The problem with that is that Rarity's friends aren't easy to give up on her and the power of friendship, again, saves them and Ponyville.

Heather Nufer goes places here that Katie Cook did not, and while the whimsy is played down, the fantasy aspect of this world is amped up to all levels. The yuck-yucks are kept to a minimal as the battle for Ponyville takes up a good chunk of the issue, but still gives plenty of cameo power for any Pony fan to enjoy. Pinkie Pie's humor remains intact, and a shining example of the consistency of the book as a whole. The characterization of Luna as a pony full of regret that she became what she did is a nice touch and something not really touched on elsewhere.

The art here, though, really needed some sharper detail. Amy Mebberson has already made a name for herself in the independent scene, but some of the later pages here just seem crammed full and the action confusing. Add in series regular colorist Heather Breckle, and things look great, but not as comprehensive as they have been. The entire arc has been superb, and adequately lives up to Katie Cook and Andy Price's previous arc, but something just falls flat and makes it muddled.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic #8 is a satisfying end to the arc, but I'm already anticipating what Cook and Price come up with for the next few months to come. I'd like to see Mebberson come back eventually down the line, but hopefully something that plays to her strengths a tad more.

American Vampire: The Long Road to Hell
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Rafael Albuquerque and Dave McCaig
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Vertigo
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Review by Lan Pitts

It's been a minute since we've seen teenage vampire slayer Travis Kidd, and while his presence here almost seems like an afterthought, it's the tragic story of Billy Bob and Jolene as star-crossed lovers and skilled thieves that steals the show and expands this world by connecting established characters with new ones.

It feels odd whenever Pearl's or Skinner's story isn't progressed, but when Snyder introduced Travis a couple of arcs ago, he breathed new life into the title and I nearly forgot all about Pearl, Skinner, Henry and other older characters because Travis had a very strong personality. While Travis does grace the cover of this one-shot, he doesn't show up till much later, but the story does fine without him until then.

The main characters here are Billy Bob and Jolene, a couple of con artists who stumble upon a small coven in the Midwest and are turned. Not too far away, young Jasper Miller is being punished in his orphanage, while learning to use his psychic powers to his advantage. The couple eventually crosses paths with young Jasper and take him along with them to Vegas as they're out to find the cure for their vampiric lust.

Co-creators Scott Snyder and artist Rafael Albuquerque are in top form here, giving long time fans and new readers alike the sense of romance and gore they've learned to expect by now from the title. This is easily Albuquerque's strongest issue in a long while. His art just seems more on point, creating some visceral imagery while at the same time, giving us some more quieter and subtle moments that still carry a sharp edge. Dave McCaig does some of the great level of work here as we've been accustomed to by now. Moody blues and grays bouncing back and forth with razor sharp reds and mellow golds just make these pages pop and stick with you.

It's Shakespeare that established comedies end with a wedding and tragedies end with funerals, but what is to be said about something that ends with both? Snyder gives us a unique tale that any new reader can jump on board and enjoy. True, it would help to have some of Travis' backstory, but even that is minimal as it's obvious on what he does here. This issue is to set up the return of American Vampire when it returns this fall, so if new readers like what they see, they have time to rewind and go back to explore this macabre world.

Thumbprint #1
Written by Jason Ciaramella
Art by Vic Malhotra
Lettering by Robie Robbins
Published by IDW
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Based on a novella by Joe Hill, Thumbprint is the story of a disgraced Iraq war veteran who is being stalked by a mysterious person who marks his presence with a single thumbprint on a blank piece of paper. But the comic gives no moral compass and no ethical center to which readers can attach. Instead, we feel as much adrift as its main character and by the end of the comic; we’re no closer to understanding her plight.

While I haven’t read the novella, I think Jason Ciaramella does a nice job of translating prose to comics. He doesn’t overload the issue with dialogue, internal or between characters, and he transitions smoothly between the main character’s life in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, and her life as a VFW bartender in a stagnant, amoral town in New York.

The only hindrance to the story is that it’s mostly exposition. We haven’t really gotten too deep yet, and while the main conflict has been introduced, I still don’t feel like I care enough about Mallory Grennan. But maybe this is Ciaramella’s point - maybe Mallory is beyond redemption. Ciaramella draws attention to the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq immediately as Mallory’s father was a Vietnam War veteran. But while her father was able to come home and be the same man he was before he left, Mallory deals with despicable people, and she never really emotes much.

A lot of times, Vic Malhotra draws Mallory looking vapid and emotionless. She’s haunting to look at as her face is often stoic and her eyes devoid of any real life. The only time we see any of her emotions is when she was in the prison, even though she was discharged for some offensive photos she posed in (ala Lynndie England).

Malhotra also draws stark and impressive changes in style between modern day and Iraq. He uses a grittier style to reflect Mallory’s role as an army interrogator, and a softer tone to indicate when we’re looking at the present. Conversely, the comic lacks certain detail in distance shots and sometimes scenery is nothing more than a calico blur. But Malhotra is dynamite with close ups and in setting the mood. The torture scene is the centerpiece of the comic, particularly in its unassuming yet mood heavy color scheme. It’s definitely an indicator of Mallory’s inhumanity as well as a foreshadowing of her future.

Thumbprint has promise, and I’m definitely intrigued to see how it will turn out. The story hinges on a pretty good mystery, and while its main character doesn’t evoke reader sympathy, I’m curious to see how she deals with her past, as well as her future. If Thumbprint is meant to be a microcosm of veterans returning from war, it definitely captures the difficult transition many soldiers have in adapting to normalcy. Hopefully it has a much more fulfilling ending for its character.

Credit: Monkeybrain

Kinski #2
Written by Gabriel Hardman
Art by Gabriel Hardman
Lettering by Gabriel Hardman
Published by Monkeybrain Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It's an old story. A businessman breezes into town for a meeting. He's got something to sell or buy. While there, he meets someone. It's a brief meeting, just enough to make the man think he's fallen in love. But we all know what it really is. It's not love; it's lust. Even as he falls madly in love, he learns that the object of his desire belongs to another. In Gabriel Hardman's Kinski #2, Joe is that crazy, foolish businessman, stumbling into another town on another trip only to lose his heart. Only it's not a woman that he falls head over heels for; it's a dog. After having stolen the dog he named Kinski out of someone's backyard, getting out of town with the purloined pup may not be as easy as he thought it would be. That is if he even thought about what he would do with Kinski at all.

There’s very little reason yet to believe that Joe is anything other than a usually decent guy. As Hardman writes him, Joe seems to just be in a rut of bad decisions. First there's the dognapping. In the first issue, he stole Kinski out of his owners' backyard without really knowing the situation at all. He saw a stray dog wandering the parking lot of his hotel and started obsessing over the dog, leading him to steal the dog before his flight back home. In Kinski #2, Joe's boss is obviously furious over Joe's erratic behavior while his co-worker Frank seems unfazed by Joe's actions. From Joe’s boss’s perspective, is this the act of a normal man that makes her really question him or is this the last straw? Hardman doesn’t really let us into Joe’s past so we don’t yet know where Joe’s compulsion over this dog is coming from.

Naming the dog after one of Werner Herzog's favorite actors Klaus Kinski should easily clue us into the driving force of Hardman's story. Hardman even name checks Aguirre, The Wrath of God in this issue as Joe and Frank, determined to drive home with Kinski, flirt with pretty bartender. Joe makes googly eyes at her, as if she's briefly taken the place of Kinski in his eyes and heart. It's like he's trying to fill some dog-shaped hole in his soul. A pretty girl, tending bar in some backwater town- how much trouble could Joe really get in? Hardman continues to show us one bad choice after another.

The black and white art makes the world appear deceptively clearer than it is. Usually working in color, Hardman draws light and shadows. Here his artwork is driven by lines that give us a clear, hard definition of the world. There is no hiding for Joe. There’s no shadows for Joe to hide in as we see everything he’s done. While the story itself opens us to ask “why?” and to ponder on the thoughts, motivations and choices that Joe makes, the art is much more unforgiving as we watch Joe take glee that he’s taken someone’s dog. It’s not glee over the act but the mystery still remains of what the dog means to Joe. Neither the story or the art has let us in on that yet.

A dog, a bartender, an enabling co-worker, an irate boss and a woman working at the hotel who knows that no dogs are allowed. While Joe may honestly believe that he’s rescuing Kinski from a negligent family, Hardman is setting up this circle of witnesses, judges and accomplices around Joe. I think it’s obvious to say that he’s not acting in any rational way and we see him continue down a path of questionable choices. Kinski #2 is about what most truly captivating stories are about: obsession. A man sees something and has to have it. Whether it’s a woman or a dog, obsessions lead men to do stupid things and Joe is no different than anyone else that way.

Credit: Titan Comics

A1 #1
Written by Dave Elliott and W. H Rauf
Art by Barnaby Bagenda, Jessica Kholinne, Rhoald Marcellius, Sakti Yuwono, and Gary Gastonny
Lettering by Imam E. Wibowo
Published by Titan Comics
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

A literary mash-up, a superhero parody, and a dark version of Captain America come together in this first issue of an anthology that shows quite a bit of promise.

Anthology comics often can be hit and miss, but it’s a great opportunity to explore stories in short form and sample several ideas instead of having to pick a single story. For companies such as Titan Comics, I think this is an essential strategy, because instead of trying to get people to look at three comics, they only have to sell the potential reader on one.

The opening story, "Weird Willows," combines elements from several public domain characters. Writer Davie Elliott incorporates (by my estimation) parts of Alice in Wonderland, Doctor Dolittle, Jungle Book, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even Peter Cottontail into the mix. It’s an odd combination, but, with the exception of over sexualizing Alice a bit too much for my taste (she spends most of the issue solely in a dress shirt with no pants), it works quite well. I really like how Elliott twists these characters to their darkest natures and links them by their connection to the animal kingdom. Artist Barnaby Bagenda aids in the atmosphere by designing the iconic figures to be as menacing as possible, though his pencil work is thin and leaves a lot of the heavy lifting to colorist Jessica Kholinne, a style I’m not overly fond of but is used often by smaller companies. Despite having a lot of set-up work to do, I was immediately captivated and can’t wait to read the next chapter.

Superhero parodies are notoriously difficult to pull off successfully. They’re often heavy-handed and derivative. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by "Carpediem," a dysfunctional team based on the idea of having heroes themed to days of the week. Feeling more like something out of Mad Magazine, W. H. Rauf gleefully kills off the expected main character within the first few pages and then we’re off to the races, as a killer culinary robot tries to take over the world. Only the power of a cow can save the world, but at the cost of turning a hero into a herd animal. Full of tongue-in-cheek jokes and ably illustrated by Rhoald Marcellius, whose art is oversized and cartoonish ala Humberto Ramos (but with more consistency in proportions), this is a parody that gets it right by concentrating on the jokes instead of trying to make a point.

Every anthology has their weak link, and for me it was "Odyssey," Dave Elliott’s second story in the comic. It's attempt at creating a Captain America-like figure but with a personal cost that is both high and somewhat predictable. This one isn’t bad, because let’s face it, the idea of the government sacrificing young men to create a superhero is pretty realistic, but I felt like it fell into the “echo trap” that so many indie comics do-trying too hard to give their own variant of an established property. Garrie Gastonny uses an extremely realistic style that works well for the material he’s given, though given his variant cover, I wonder if Marvel may have an issue with the main character’s costume. There’s hope that this one could take an interesting turn, but I think it will probably end up being my least favorite for as long as it’s in this anthology.

So having gotten my attention, was the comic worth my time? Definitely. I was extremely pleased with the quality of the stories in this first issue, each of which gave just enough information to intrigue the reader about the premise and leave me wanting to see what happens next to these characters. The themes are not original, but Dave Elliott and W. H. Rauf do a good job of putting their personal spin on the ideas, especially in the areas of dialogue and characterization. Having read comics for more than 30 years now, I don’t require original ideas so much as a good take on solid themes. A1 #1 provides that in spades and is recommended for anyone looking to try a new series.

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