Credit: DC Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for your post-weekend helping of reviews? Best Shots has you covered, with this week's Monday column! So let's kick off with the battle royale of the DC Universe, as we watch the Trinity War unfold over in Justice League...

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #22
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Oclair Albert and Rod Reis
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The Trinity War starts off with a bang, as Geoff Johns pits two super-teams against each other in the latest issue of Justice League. While the pacing for this issue occasionally comes off a bit slow, you can't fault Johns and company when it comes to the stakes - in this extra-sized issue, punches are thrown, blood is spilled, and more than one person isn't coming back alive.

In a lot of ways, this comic is the culmination of much of Johns' work over the past six months, as he bounces between Superman and Wonder Woman's newly blossoming relationship, the secret of Pandora and the Trinity of Sin, the introduction of the relaunched Shazam, the creation of Steve Trevor's Justice League of America and the Society of Super-Villains. It's taken awhile to get to this point, but Johns gets points for finally pulling the trigger on all this buildup, as Billy Batson's lack of real-world experience winds up getting him cold-cocked by the Man of Steel himself. It's this fight sequence that's probably the best part of the book, as Billy's youthful exuberance provides a nice counterbalance to the straight-laced Superman and Wonder Woman.

Of course, with so many moving parts to this comic, there is still a lot of exposition here, and that does wind up slowing the speed of this comic considerably. Johns gets fairly dialogue-heavy through much of the comic, and sometimes it's more of him spelling out philosophical differences - like Clark and Diana's differing views on killing, for example - rather than showing us a resonant, human kind of characterization. Billy Batson suffers the most from this near the beginning of the book, as Johns seems to forget his brash, bratty characterization from previous issues. Thankfully, once Billy transforms into his super-powered alter ego, he recovers. It's when Johns bucks the trends that you really start to perk up, particularly when Superman crosses a line you never would have expected.

Ivan Reis, meanwhile, shows he's the man for the job, particularly with a double-page spread of the Martian Manhunter growing in size to take on Superman, the two warring Leagues squaring off in the background. Considering the sheer amount of verbiage and panels Johns calls for in his scripts, Reis does an admirable job of packing it all in, and he deserves a lot of credit for making the splash pages look larger than life. (Although looking at it again, two Superman-centric pages might be a little overkill.) That said, occasionally his layouts do hold him back, particularly the letterbox effect that hampers some of the energy of the Superman-Shazam brawl.

As far as comic book popcorn blockbusters go, The Trinity War definitely will hit all the fan buttons, as hero battles hero a fight for the ages. While occasionally this issue trips over its own dialogue, the execution of the high concept still has enough of a visceral thrill that you can't fault it. With some surprising casualties already mounting, my curiosity is definitely piqued.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Superior Spider-Man #13
Written by Dan Slott and Christos Gage
Art by Giuseppe Camuncoli, John Dell, Terry Pallot and Antonio Fabela
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

With all of Peter Parker's powers and none of his responsibility, Otto Octavius is ready to get more blood on his hands in the latest issue of Superior Spider-Man - unfortunately, since Otto has already crossed this line before, this gorgeously illustrated issue feels like it's just going through the motions, as Dan Slott and Christos Gage fail to break new ground for the unfriendly neighborhood web-slinger.

To boil it down to its essence, Superior Spider-Man #13 is basically a fight comic - as Spider-Slayer Alistair Smythe struggles to escape from the super-powered prison known as the Raft, Otto is on a rampage, ready to terminate this B-lister with extreme prejudice. Dan Slott and Christos Gage tack on some parallels between Otto and Alistair's escapes from the same place, but it ultimately feels like window dressing to the fisticuffs at hand.

The problem with this is that there's nothing particularly flashy about said fighting - compared to, say, the tense hostage situation Slott put together when Otto was weighing whether or not to kill Massacre, this feels more like moving from Point A to Point B. There's nothing to suggest Otto won't succeed in his goals, and without that "will he or won't he" question, there's nothing to surprise us.

Well, nothing except for Giuseppe Camuncoli. The artist demonstrates why he's one of the A-listers in the business, particularly with his striking introduction as Otto tears down the halls of the Raft in search of his prey. Teamed up with inkers John Dell and Terry Pallot, the detail here is particularly striking, especially when we watch Spider-Man and the Spider-Slayer dive at each other, as we see spider-bots and wreckage strewn throughout the background. Camuncoli's design work also plays to his strengths, as his techno-influenced spins on the Vulture, Scorpion and Boomerang all look particularly menacing and powerful.

It's that strong art that keeps Superior Spider-Man going, as aside from the standard fisticuffs, there's really only one minor plot point that Slott and Gage hit that is needed to progress to the next arc. Granted, it's becoming increasingly clear that Otto is going to evolve into his own kind of Spider-Man, and that's something that will be worth watching - but as for the here-and-now, well, this isn't quite the most superior arc we've seen in this series.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #22
Written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV
Art by Greg Capulllo, Danny Miki, FCO Plascencia, Rafael Albuquerque, and Dave McCaig
Lettering by Nick Napolitano, and Taylor Esposito
Published by DC Comics
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

I guess it should be clarified that Batman: Year Zero is not just simply a retelling of Bruce's ascent to becoming Batman, but also what Gotham was like before Batman in general. While it might seem almost sacrilegious to be stepping on the mound of Batman: Year One, Scott Snyder and company are really driving home the fact that this is something very different, and giving a reason on why it should be told in the first place. We're seeing the puzzle pieces begin to form the bigger picture.

Right off the bat (pun intended) you'll notice that colorist FCO Plascencia certainly has lightened things up. His palette is remarkably different and almost seems like a completely different artist at work here. The moody grays and blues are replaces by bright reds and warm greens. It's almost as if Bruce's world has its own personal spotlight shining down. Also immediately, you'll see a different side of a Bruce, something more human and vulnerable. This is not the perfect crimefighter or the World's Greatest Detective. This is simply a man with a quest, but his ideas seemed unfocused and almost impractical at this point. Not to say Bruce is careless, but he's still breaking in those wonderful toys and getting used to them.

Snyder is really on point with his world-building. Here we get a glimpse of Gotham that we haven't seen yet in this new universe. The city isn't as broken, but there are definite cracks showing with the more of the prominence of the Red Hood Gang running amok and even a brief cameo by Oswald Cobblepot pre-nom de crime. The focus on Edward Nygma is interesting, too. Capullo's visuals in one scene certainly gives clues to the man's future and the relationship between him and Bruce down the line has in store. It's a nice nod, for sure.

Speaking of Capullo, while he's certainly has made a name for himself as of the quintessential Bat-artists of this generation in such a short time, his storytelling here is unlike what he's done previously. The panels don't seem so burdened with heavy detail weighing them down and let's FCO do his thing properly filling them with color, but still having a sense of atmosphere. It took a second to get used to, but when the detail is poured on, i.e., the Gotham cityscape or Bruce's lab, it's done with fine precision and emotion.

Batman #22 is then topped off with another one of young Bruce's early adventures, done by James Tynion IV and Rafael Albuequerque. It goes into mild detail about Bruce's resourcefulness and cunning before heading back to Gotham with his quest in mind. The wispy colors of Dave McCaig give it a nice retro feel, too. The issue is bringing in all these characters and elements are showing us the early days of not just Bruce, but Gotham as well. Snyder writes Gotham at times like a living thing and here, that notion is still front and center. Stories like this is what the foundation of the New 52 should have been built upon, and it's about time we finally see something like this come to fruition.

Credit: First Second Comics

The Invincible Haggard West #101
Written by Paul Pope
Art by Paul Pope
Lettering by Paul Pope
Published by First Second Comics
Review by Lindsey Morris
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

If you've seen The Death of Haggard West #101 at your local comic shop this week and been confused as to how you've managed to never even glimpse one of the other issues, don't fret. This comic is a one-shot disguised as the final issue of a bigger storyline, because technically, it is. Haggard West is a main character in Paul Pope's upcoming graphic novel Battling Boy, and this is a trailer of sorts for what's to come in the book.

The scene is set on the streets of Arcopolis where a group of young boys are playing. As the streetlights come on to signal that people should return to their homes, a gang of monsters sets upon the children and begin dragging them away. Haggard West is the first, last, and only line of defense for this city. He springs into action, and saves a number of the boys before a trap is sprung on him. Having put himself in a situation that he cannot escape, the sub-title of the comic is realized in full. His daughter Aurora is all that is left of Haggard's legacy, and at his funeral a Captain who served with her father gives her the ring they found at the scene of his death - it was all that was left.

Paul Pope is a force of nature, and this latest work is just the tip of the iceberg that contains the depth of his talent. Taking up the reins of both writer and artist (as per usual), he has crafted this issue as backstory for in his forthcoming book. The characters are introduced as though we already know who they are. The great hero Haggard, the monster Sadisto and his gang, they've all had a long history already and are treated as such. Well-developed, yet still expendable, our hero jets through the issue towards his inevitable demise as the reader follows, aware of what's to come. Perhaps it was the simple act of giving this issue the sub-title of "The Death of Haggard West" that makes everything that happens within its pages seem expected, like it already happened long ago and is part of a greater mythos now.

The city of Arcopolis is rich with cracked cement, murky puddles, creepy alcoves, and grimy warehouses - an ideal setting for the beautifully crafted character designs. The inking is rich with line variation, textural accents, and intricate details that are cornerstones of any Pope comic, and they are executed as expertly as ever. The coloring and lettering too, are done by Pope, who uses a rather muted palette for the characters but bright blues and greens for the backgrounds, which really make the pages pop, especially the action sequences. The font used in the comic seems to be a combination of a type-set of his own devising, along with hand lettering, which has so much personality it's almost a character itself. All of these elements blend together to create a truly unique visual experience, though one that will certainly be familiar if you are acquainted with Pope's previous work.

The Invincible Haggard West is told as a traditional super hero tale, a brief glimpse of what has already come to pass in the city of Arcopolis, and a hint at what lies ahead. Not only is it a great comic in its own right, but a strong indication that Battling Boy will be a tour de force.

Credit: First Second Comics

Written by Jordan Mechner
Art by LeUlyen Pham, Alex Puvilland, Hilary Sycamore and Alex Campbell
Published by First Second Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Jordan Mechner is probably best known as the person responsible for creating the acclaimed games and movie; yet, his new graphic novel, Templar, fully demonstrates his ability to masterfully weave a tale in still another medium. While many of the popular histories and works of historical fiction that deal with the Knights Templar focus on the most well-known individuals involved with the holy order’s fall from grace, Mechner eschews recycling their stories and turns to “those figures of no importance” – that is, the common Templar knights and soldiers whose personal experiences were lost amidst the publicly recorded trials and tribulation.

Set against the epic backdrop of a national inquisition, this is a story of a handful of these once-renowned, now turned outlaws - regular people who found themselves caught up in irregular circumstances. Coming in at 472 pages, Templar is an ambitious graphic novel that takes readers on an adventure of near-epic proportions through early 14th Century France. Although it is thick with the history surrounding the Templars and the tensions between the French monarchy and the Papacy during this period, Templar provides an accessible and highly satisfying reading experience for a wide-range of readers.

After the Knights’ unsuccessful attempt to hold Jerusalem and their subsequent loss to the Muslims, they faced growing pressures from the various European rulers who helped finance the unsuccessful campaigns, and Mechner’s story deals with the fallout from this conflict. He provides readers with more than enough background to help readers familiarize readers with these historical events without saturating the panels with exposition. Instead, he applies just the right amount of exposition to aid in setting the ominous tone and creating brooding atmosphere of the book. What makes this book especially enjoyable is how well-rounded it is in terms of the reading experience it delivers as it touches upon action, romance, drama, and suspense.

Although Mechner weaves the grand narrative of the Templars’ fall from grace into his book, the story itself focuses on Martin of Troyes, a low-ranking Templar Knight with a penchant for trouble and drink in spite of his vows to the order. We discover Martin joined the order over a decade before the events of the story when he found the love of his life, Isabelle, betrothed to a noble of a far higher rank and station now since deceased. Upon the knights’ return to their Parisian fortress, Martin sneaks out with two friends for an evening of revelry. Fortunately for them, this was the same night the king ordered the immediate arrest of every Templar and the seizure of their wealth and property leaving them unscathed. Through a series of events, the trio is joined by fellow Templar associates and Isabella herself as they undertake the impossible journey of unearthing the hidden and much sought after treasure of the Templar Knighthood.

In addition to weaving action, romance, mystery, and suspense into this historical fictionTemplar manages to strike a balance between eye-catching, thought-provoking aesthetics while keeping the pace of the narrative moving along at a consistent pace. Many of the pages employ a more standard grid pattern, and given the length of this novel, this is a smart move, as a more deconstructed approach to the visual elements of the story would no doubt bog down many readers. The actions sequences are plentiful, however, and they help pick up the pace in just the right moments.

Additionally, Pham and Puvillard’s unexaggerated, cartoonish style works is one that lends itself to being easily read and enjoyed, but it is not without detail or nuance. The inks applied to each panel often lend to a roughly hewn feeling, as though elements of the art were scratched or carved out of wood - fitting given the period and setting of Templar. Moreover, Sycamore and Campbell work well together in coloring Pham and Puvillard’s illustrations, helping to intensify many of the horrific and harrowing scenes while softening and bringing to life many of the more intimate and more personal moments.

Templar captures just enough of the horrors of war to avoid romanticizing them; yet, it is equally clear that neither Pham nor Puvillard – who provide the illustrations – mistakenly draw focus from the narrative to “cool battle scenes.” One of the opening scenes depicts the Muslims’ siege at Acre. A banner representing the sound of the drums echoes “Boom Boom Boom” across a double-pages spread and each subsequent page until the scene’s end. It is a powerful technique that helps to keep the pace of the narrative moving quickly and underscore the rising action taking place in each ensuing panel. Later in the book, this same scene is powerfully recalled during the trial of the Templar elders outside of Paris. The comparison creates a sensation that is both tragic and chilling.

There is a lot in Templar for readers of all backgrounds to enjoy, and I rather suspect fans of the popular Game of Thrones novels and television series will find much to appreciate in this original graphic novel. While this hardcover novel does have a higher price point than most comic books today (retail price is $39.99), it is still less expensive per page than most comic books on newsstands every Wednesday. More importantly, Templar tells a story of heroism that lends itself to multiple readings that booklovers of all backgrounds will find satisfying many years after their first meeting with Martin of Troyes.

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