Best Shots Comic Reviews: LOCKE & KEY Finale, BATMAN: ARKHAM ORIGINS DC^2, More

Credit: IDW

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for the Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, as we kick off today's edition with Brian Bannen, as he takes a look at the final issue of Locke & Key...

Credit: IDW

Locke & Key: Alpha #2
Written by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez
Art by Gabriel Rodriguez and Jay Fotos
Lettering by Robbie Robbins
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Be warned: Locke & Key: Alpha #2, the final issue in Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s seminal Locke & Key series, wants to tug at your heartstrings and bring you to tears. And it does again, and again, and again.

But the tears and time are worth it.

After 37 issues of family strife, murder, supernatural demons and of course, keys, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez bring their award winning series Locke & Key to a poignant, emotional, formative and brilliant close.

Readers will have no doubt that this is the end of the Locke family’s story as Hill and Rodriguez tie up every loose end by the end of the issue, giving readers a definitive conclusion to the story. There’s no more conflict to face, only the realization that the keys have provided the Locke family with everything it needs -- both positively and negatively -- and the realization that having so much power also brings with it a price, and clearly the Locke family has paid it.

Hill and Rodriguez don’t pull any emotional punches as the issue opens with the heart-wrenching funeral of Bode Locke, the youngest child of the Locke family. Watching Nina, Tyler and Kinsey struggle with Bode’s death is enough to bring readers to their knees, and here is the brilliance of the writing team. The emotional impact of these moments will not be lost on readers, and seeing the characters grieve is hard enough to endure without Rodriguez’s vivid illustrations.

But Hill and Rodriguez believe in redemption, and even the most loathsome of characters is given a shot at doing something positive. And here is where Locke & Key delivers its best moments. Whether its Kinsey and Nina remembering Bode, Lucas Caravaggio’s eventual absolution, Tyler’s conversation with his dead father, or even a moment so powerful that it brought this reviewer to tears, Locke & Key wants readers to know that this is the end, but it doesn’t have to be a sad one.

Gabriel Rodriguez and Jay Fotos bring a cinematic quality to Locke & Key: Alpha #2 as the series’ step by step pacing is especially powerful in this final issue. From Nina Locke’s emotional breakdown after the death of her son, to Tyler reuniting with a lost family member who delivers a quote worthy speech, many character shed tears in this issue, and I couldn’t help but shed them as well because the closure provided in this issue is like whip cream on an ice cream cake.

The artistic team clearly wants to close the book with their best work, and they definitely succeed. While Rodriguez’s illustrations are sharp, lucid and polished, Jay Fotos’s colors are vibrant and vivid. Every emotion is captured with the utmost clarity, helping to deliver the dramatic impact Hill and Rodriguez are aiming for.

As the comic comes to a close, readers are reminded of the overriding theme of Locke & Key: the importance of family. Throughout everything that has occurred, the Locke family has found a way to grow beyonds its failings, to forgive, and to believe in each other.

On a more philosophical note, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez want to explore the notion of death and the afterlife, a continuous motif of Locke & Key. One character in particular aptly sums up this belief when he says: “Death isn’t the end of your life, you know. Your body is a lock. Death is the key. The Key turns ... and you’re free.”

And the finality of this issue is cemented with the last image, a panel of Tyler closing a door, and therefore bringing the Locke family’s odd, terrifying, and dramatic struggle to an end. It’s a more saccharine ending than most readers are used to, but it’s also the kind of ending readers deserve, particularly those who have seen Locke & Key through since its inception.

Because sometimes, things do end well, and regardless of the struggles of daily life, we can find a positive on the other side of a closed door.

As long as we have the right key.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman: Arkham Origins Chapter 1
Story by Adam Beechen, Doug Wagner, and Frank Hannah
Art by Christian Duce, Richard Ortiz, Federico Dallocchio, Vicente Cifuentes, Omar Francia, Victor Drujinui, Thomas Derenick, Santi Casas, and David Lopez
Letters by Travis Lanham Published by DC Comics and Madefire
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Batman: Arkham Origins is a digital comic currently build around the iOS platform, which means this is only available to iPad users at the present time. The comic is designed to allow readers to "read, see, hear, and experience [the] DC2 MultiVerse story, powered by Madefire Technology." The aim is to deliver a comic reading experience that is something of a blending of motion comics and a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story. Readers can then buy new chapters to this prequel to the video game of the same name as soon as they are released. But is this comic the "bold, graphic novel experience" DC hopes it will be? Let's begin with looking at what works followed by what does not work so well to find the answer to that question.

For starters, the platform is fairly smart. First, I can remember being enthralled with the notion of a digital "Choose Your Own Adventure" comic when it was first suggested in Tom Hanks' Big back in 1986. It seems someone at Madefire had a similar experience and decided to make dream a reality. DC then offers readers the opportunity to "pay as you go" or to buy the entire eight-chapter comic for a special price, which includes downloadable skins for the Batman: Arkham Origins the video game. Additionally, readers are able to follow one story line through to its completion, then go back, and see what happens had they made other choices. In theory, this sounds like a cool idea and a break from having to use multiple fingers to hold pages as an insurance policy against "death" as so often happened with the original, paperback "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories. I'll discuss why this "in theory" later.

I don't typically read motion comics, as I like to allow my imagination to most of the work for me without the distraction of images literally moving around in front of me or voice actors whose performances fell flat for me. This comic does make use of a background score, but that was one element I thought worked well. I often enjoy having music on while reading, and admittedly, it was well suited to the subject matter. So this was another plus for the comic.

But that said, while the concept that Madefire is putting forward here sounds great as a concept, it all means very little without a compelling storyline and dynamic art to catch and keep the reader's attention. Batman: Arkham Origins accomplished neither. I was shocked that, for a comic that doesn't deliver a reading experience much longer than that of the standard 22-page comic being published in hardcopy, it had as many writers and artists involved as it did. The last time I reviewed a comic with a credits list like this was an anthology near five times the length! Unfortunately, the inconsistency in art shows right away. There were a number of instances where body proportions were not right, i.e. Batman's knee being larger than his entire head, and facial expressions not being as well detailed, as they should have been to convey tone in an effective manner to name just a few. Additionally, there were times when I really had to question the choice of panel composition as being in service to showing off a sound-and-motion effect versus driving the story – do we really need a close up on the bat-grapple's gears? Nevertheless, these weren't the most egregious problems with the comic.

I could go on about how the story itself is just a number of scenes of Batman beating up some thugs and then returning to the Bat cave for a "pep talk" from Alfred, all of which feels generally uninspired. But the part of Batman: Arkham Origins that truly sunk this comic for me is when we see a young Batman trying to figure out how to flip a thug to be his informant – a clear move to set the stage for his popular technique of hanging criminals upside down off skyscrapers. This time, however, Batman brandishes one of his razor sharp Bat-a-rangs and threatens to both cut out the criminal's tongue and pry out his teeth. A threat is one thing, but seeing Batman menacingly hunched over the thug while blood splattered all over the place, I was reminded of the dirty work Tony Soprano would have his criminal lackeys carry out for him. While I am typically pretty flexible when it comes to writers taking some creative liberties with continuity, this took Batman beyond his core beliefs and presented a character who behaved no differently than Roman Sionus – just another violent criminal seeking to exert his control over Gotham. Whatever character this team aimed to tell a story about, it was definitively not Batman.

Since readers don't really get too many options in this introductory installment, we can't go too far into the other storylines to see what else is in store for reader leaving the scene with Batman as the main standout from this episode. It's also disappointing as it doesn't really give readers much of an opportunity to experience the fun of choosing their own adventure – something that is supposed to be a major draw to this comic.

I still think Madefire is really onto something with this new platform they've developed. The controls are easy, it eschews voice acting altogether leaving this to the reader's imagination – a real strength – and it has the potential to deliver a new reading experience that invites the reader to participate in the storytelling process. Unfortunately, Batman: Arkham Origins fails as a comic for a variety of reasons: Insufficient editorial oversight in the script, the inability to bring together a cohesive creative team, something else I'm missing altogether, or a combination of these possibilities. Rumor is Madefire is working on developing similar comics for other publishers, so it's likely best to wait for those comics instead, as I doubt many fans of Batman will enjoy what this comic has to offer. Additionally, I hope Madefire's future comics will provide readers with a greater number of opportunities to sit behind the wheel and begin driving the narrative right from the beginning compared to what readers experience with Batman: Arkham Origins as I never truly felt like I chose this adventure.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Superior Spider-Man #24
Written by Dan Slott and Christos Gage
Art by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba, Edgar Delgado, Antonio Fabela and Veronica Gandini
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

With great power comes great responsibility - but with great high concepts, does great characterization necessarily tag along?

In the case of Superior Spider-Man #24, there's a lot going on, at the cost of Dan Slott and Christos Gage's greatest strength - their innate knowledge of what Spider-Man is truly about. With Otto Octavius under the thrall of the Venom symbiote, Slott and Gage keep throwing complication after complication at this new-and-allegedly-improved Wallcrawler, but they wind up missing out on the dramatic irony that made Slott's run so compelling in the first place.

Of course, it's easy to confuse characterization with soap operatics, which is something that Slott and Gage do very well here. Otto continues to run afoul of those closest to Peter Parker, as he angrily confronts Aunt May for her treatment of his girlfriend Anna Maria in the last issue, not to mention belittles Mary Jane right to her face. But the problem with this is that while it definitely builds up conflict and tension, it also makes Otto into a one-dimensional character - he's a jerk, through and through, but there is so much room for exploration, to continue to compare and contrast him with Peter Parker. Even Otto being taken over by the symbiote feels a bit like a missed opportunity - this is Otto's ambition and arrogance getting the best of him, but he's also experiencing one of Peter's greatest challenges for the first time. There are a few cute references to the old "Lethal Protector" series, but there's so much going on that Slott and Gage don't really have enough time to dig deeper.

The artwork by Humberto Ramos feels a bit more distended and cartoony than his usual, which you can write off to the shape-shifting nature of the Venom symbiote. Still, there are some pages - particularly when Otto's face is twisted with rage - where the faces look gnarled and weird. On the one hand, I get that Ramos's style keeps this comic from getting too depressing, but on the other, it doesn't quite play up the nuance that you could have gotten from this arc.

However, in Slott and Gage's defense, this issue feels like some build-up towards something better. Otto revealing himself as Venom to Mary Jane is one of the creepier moments of the book, and the cliffhanger - pitting Otto against the Avengers - sounds like a fun battle royale. That said, with so much going on, from the symbiote to Aunt May to the Green Goblin and the Hobgoblin, there's more plot than substance to Superior Spider-Man #24 - it's a shame, because I know there's more to Otto Octavius than simple fan-service.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman and Two-Face #26
Written by Peter Tomasi
Art by Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray, Keith Champagne and John Kalisz
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Despite the title of Batman and Two-Face, Peter Tomasi's story really isn't about either of them - instead, this comic focuses primarily on Irish crime boss Erin McKillen, and the story behind her feud with one-time District Attorney Harvey Dent. While this book continues to be illustrated beautifully, the story itself feels a bit extraneous, with some sloppy moments keeping this issue from true greatness.

To his credit, Peter Tomasi nails this comic where it counts - namely, if you're going to introduce a brand-new villain to a franchise as rich as Batman, you better actually think things through. Erin's white-hot hostility comes from a very understandable place - why would you go after a district attorney when you could just leave Gotham for good? When you have a twin sister who didn't make it out of jail alive. Tomasi's characterization for the pre-scarred Dent in particular makes you root for the bad guys in this case, as the so-called "hero" of Gotham City comes off as a sadistic jerk. On the one hand, this works well for this particular story - that said, it also goes against the grain from the tragic nature of Two-Face's origin, which means this story likely won't stick.

That said, Batman and Two-Face themselves get the short end of the stick. Bruce Wayne appears mainly as exposition, as the limits of our suspension of disbelief get stretched to their limits - can we really accept that this billionaire playboy really paid for a prison breakout? Combine that with a truly awkward bit about the Cherokee proverb about "the wolf you feed," and the script comes off as a bit overwritten. (And a reference to the recent Netflix series "Orange is the New Black" feels particularly out of place, especially since Tomasi uses it in a flashback.) Batman and Two-Face, meanwhile doesn't get much screen time, only popping up at the end when Tomasi needs a fight sequence. It feels more perfunctory, especially since this issue isn't really their story.

The artwork, however, is as strong as ever. Patrick Gleason knows how to add mood to any scene, even when there's no action going on. You can see the pain in Erin's eyes as she listens to her sister meet her gruesome end, and the sneer on Harvey Dent's face makes you want to punch him in the mouth. The short burst of fight choreography has flashes of other Bat-artists, including Greg Capullo, Scott McDaniel and Roger Robinson, but it still looks superb. Surprisingly, the inks by Mick Gray and Keith Champagne feel a little less lush than their usual, but their use of deep shadows make this book particularly atmospheric.

All in all, the rock-solid creative team keeps this book afloat, even if this story isn't the strongest in the Batman and... series. Chances are, what will bring you to this book versus any of the other strong Bat-titles is Patrick Gleason's signature art style, but if you're a fan of continuity-free storytelling and sharp artwork, Batman and Two-Face #26 is a decent, if not revolutionary, book to pick.

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