Best Shots Comic Reviews: BATMAN & TWO-FACE #27, ORIGIN II #2, More

DC Comics Previews for January 22, 2014
Credit: DC Comics

Greetings, ‘Rama readers! Ready for the Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, with this week’s edition of the big column. So let’s kick off today’s edition with Michael Moccio, as he takes a look at Batman and Two-Face

Credit: DC Comics

Batman and Two-Face #27
Written by Peter J. Tomasi
Art by Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray and John Kalisz
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Peter Tomasi is arguably one of the strongest writers DC has in their creative brain trust right now. As a former-editor, he absolutely knows the ins and outs of what makes a story work and how to make said story the best it can possibly be. Even after the Robin died in Batman and Robin, he’s still managed to craft a story around the relationship between Batman and Robin; in the issues since Damian’s death, the story has shifted to Bruce coping with that loss, making Damian still a central part to the story. This isn’t an easy feat to accomplish. Tomasi seamlessly continues to amaze readers with his profound abilities as a writer, but in the case of Batman and Two-Face #27, that ability isn’t able to make up for the relatively unengaging plot.

After four issues, this story arc seems to lack the emotional intensity and immediacy present in previous issues; after four issues, this reader isn’t sitting on the edge of his seat, anxiously awaiting the next issue, but instead wondering when we can move on to the next step in Batman and Robin. Tomasi has failed to make the Gotham crime families in-fighting more interesting and compelling than pursuing the man that “pulled [his] boy’s body and his mother’s from the earth behind [Batman’s] home,” and that’s the major flaw of the arc.

Beyond that, however, this self-contained story — although flawed in relative interest — is another great example of Tomasi’s prowess as a writer. The dialogue is seemless and realistic between the characters — we never stop and wonder “would these characters really say that.” He also makes an effort to be cognizant of the overarching world the story takes place, as the mobster says they, “Don’t want the Justice League in retaliation mode…” Many other writers avoid the overarching continuity so much they ignore the possibility of other heroes stepping in — Tomasi, on the other hand, embraces the world.

Tomasi’s strength lies in balancing between the current storyline playing out and the flashbacks intertwined throughout the story, while calling back to themes the characters experience. In the storyline, Bruce begins to come to terms with what’s happening, telling Harvey, “We’ve all got two sides, and we’re always waging war against ourselves.” In the flashbacks, Harvey must wrestle with himself as well, really coming into his own as a character. Tomasi adds relevance and context to flashbacks that would otherwise be unnecessary and provide an interesting window into Two-Face’s past.

Throughout all the seriousness of the story, Tomasi is still able to pepper in the deadpan humor commonly seen throughout Batman stories. Specifically, Batman knocking the alcohol out of Erin’s hand and doing the classic stare down at the grunt. Intermittent points like these in the narrative serve to break the dramatic tension and allow readers a reprieve from an otherwise overwhelming sense of dramatics.

As with any issue, however, there were less than stellar aspects. As with any Two-Face story, him flipping the coin becomes repetitive and, at times, far-fetched when it just “happens” to land on the choice most conducive to the story. It’s not something that’s easy to get around, and believability becomes an issue when something as ridiculous as flash bombs coming out of Batman’s boots comes on-panel.

Patrick Gleason continues to visually portray a smart sequence of events. His style of artworks promotes an easy read through with consistent visual pacing throughout, making the issue feel, as a whole, much more fluid and realistic. However, at times, the proportions in characters’ faces — especially Erin’s — seem so off, with unrealistically large mouths, noses and eyes, the artwork can sometimes come off as too cartoonish. Gleason drawing Batman, though, works fine because he’s managed to find the right balance in drawing Batman’s masked features with his costume on.

Overall, the story in and of itself isn’t weak. Tomasi is expanding on Two-Face’s backstory, while “unraveling the mysterious connections between Harvey Dent's life and the origin of Carrie Kelley.” His craft and ability as a writer shines through in the intricacies and layers that come about after examining the story more closely. The fact of the matter remains is that the future holds more excitement than the present, as the story surrounding Batman’s retrieval of his son’s remains feels much more exciting and thrilling than this story in this particular timeframe. Let’s hope Tomasi is able to make this arc worth is as it comes to a close and really give the readers a sense of fulfillment for sticking it out as we await the future storylines to be told.

Credit: M

Origin II #2
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Adam Kubert and Frank Martin
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Entertainment
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The first Origin miniseries was born out of a fear that if ol’ Canucklehead’s past wasn’t told in comics that it would be told on the big screen first. So in 2002, Paul Jenkins and Andy Kubert told a story that used Wolverine’s already known relationships in the future (those with Cyclops, Jean Grey and Sabretooth, etc.) as a template for his past, providing a context for why Logan acts the way he seemingly always has. Kieron Gillen and Adam Kubert return for round two of Wolverine’s origins but it’s unclear to what end. What else do readers still need to know about mysterious beginnings?

The first issue established Wolverine as a wild animal, raised by wolves, whose only loyalty is to his pack. After a brutal encounter with a polar bear, he is quickly reestablished as the ronin warrior we have always known. Mr. Sinister is definitely a favorite character of Kieron Gillen’s and he’s worked in here as Sabretooth’s employer. While the plot slogs on and serves to put Wolverine in a new situation, Gillen isn’t introducing any new dynamics to his relationships or his history. And if that’s the case, then why is this billed as a sequel of 2002’s Origin?

Now it’s important to note that in a five issue miniseries, we might only be approaching the end of the rising action, the climax and fallout have yet to come. It might be easier to grade this issue in retrospect as it does set the stage. The problem with using two issues to set the stage and not say anything new is that the issues themselves don’t read very well on their own. If Gillen has bigger plans (which I’d have to imagine he does, all things considered), it’s impossible to know them. Still, the “caged animal” metaphor is one we’ve seen over and over again in regards to Wolverine and so the ending of this issue doesn’t do much to inspire confidence in familiar readers.

But this book’s biggest strength is Adam Kubert’s art. His action sequences are exciting and his panel layouts are inspired. I would’ve liked a little bit more from his costume design for Mr. Sinister considering the character’s penchant for the dramatic but I love his work on Sabretooth. Dark and foreboding, he seems to be every bit a match for Logan. While the settings might’ve made it easy for Kubert to forego backgrounds entirely, he chooses to draw them, providing a nice juxtaposition between Sinister’s fanciful gentlemanly ways and the small town saloon he finds himself in. It also adds to the context of Wolverine’s capture in the Northern wilderness. Logan is a product of these woods and Kubert shows that he is every bit a part of them as Sinister’s men are not.

Considering Marvel’s recent rededication to OGNs, I’m somewhat surprised they didn’t go that route with Origin II. This issue sets up the rest of the series without telling us anything new about the character. It doesn’t have the same wow factor that issue one did with the fight between Wolverine and the polar bear. It’s not that this is a bad comic but in the course of a five-issue miniseries, this might be the one you mostly forget.

Credit: DC Comics

Animal Man #27
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Rafael Albuquerque and John Kalisz
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by Marlene Bonnelly
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

You can take Animal Man out of the Red, but you can’t take the Red out of Animal Man. Lemire’s Buddy Baker has been through many ups and downs since discovering his bloody connection to the animal kingdom, but it seems his drama with the Red and its rulers is finally reaching a climax. Issue #27 pits him against one of the totems who had originally guided him, now crazed for power and channeling an avatar of its very own. A chance to see through the eyes of the entire Baker clan, strong art and a decent story with minimal holes make this installment a fitting beginning to the end.

One of the best qualities of Lemire’s writing is how much emotion he packs into each scene — and there is no shortage of that in this issue. Ellen’s violent reaction to the media not only reminds us of the incredible dedication she feels for her family, but also mirrors her husband’s actions in previous issues. Both Buddy and Ellen succumb to rage when their children are so much as talked about the wrong way, painting them as clearly protective, loving parents and cementing their bond with each other. Their connection is therefore satisfying to readers; seeing them separated now, after having just reunited, is practically painful. This family dynamic is what drives Lemire’s entire run, creating believable characters that we are eager to sympathize with even in the most extreme and unrealistic situations.

Even so, the story relies too heavily on a deus ex machina for its foreseeable resolution. Buddy’s opponent is a god-like totem he can never hope to beat? That’s an easy fix: suddenly, he’s been imbued with the power of a completely new world that had, up until now, never even been hinted at. Buddy is to become that world’s savior, even though doing so would disrupt the earth’s balance. But isn’t that other world dependent on the balance of planets like earth? Don’t worry about it, because now Animal Man can become any creature, even an alien! Pumped on the equivalent of superpower steroids, he has a fighting chance, but the plot device employed to give him that chance is pretty weak.

On the bright side, we do get to follow more of Maxine’s adventures, culminating in the usual cliffhanger. I always find characters like Maxine interesting because, despite all her potential, she is still a child and makes decisions as a child, a fact that Lemire and company refer to frequently. Even so, the book’s layout strives to find similarities with her and her parents. It unites Buddy with Ellen in their anger and Ellen with Maxine in their fear by injecting a few panels of one point of view into another, breaking up the flow of each character’s story and forcing us to compare. The stylistic choice feeds back into the importance of these familial connections.

Albuquerque’s art is a good fit for the book, with deep, Mignola-esque shadows that add to the eerie feeling invoked by the writing. I especially enjoy the close-ups of Ellen and Maxine’s crying faces, as awful as that sounds. Many artists tone down expressions when characters are emotionally compromised in order to maintain a certain pleasant aesthetic, but there’s something raw and real about Ellen’s tears and something heart-wrenching about her daughter’s trembling lips. Kalisz also does an excellent job with colors, marking clear differences between earth and the Red in which Maxine is trapped, and even between sections of the Red itself (bathing everything in the Mountains of Muscle in a sickly pink, for instance).

Animal Man has been a consistently enjoyable read so far. The story may have become a little shaky, but that shakiness is forgivable because it’s character-driven and beautifully illustrated. As long as the team doesn’t pull any other strange tricks out of a hat, I look forward to seeing how the Baker family manages this last battle for the Red.

Credit: DC Comics

Wonder Woman #27
Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Cliff Chiang and Matthew Wilson
Letters by Jared K. Fletcher
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Brian Azzarello breathed new life into Wonder Woman at the start of the New 52, drawing a larger audience to her character and bringing in more of the Greek Mythos to tell an engaging story. It seems, though, that his ability to continually deliver the above-average quality stories we’ve come to expect has run its course. Wonder Woman #27 promised the reader a return to Paradise Island; Azzarello fails those expectations for the issue and instead delivers a lackluster and frustratingly predictably story.

The writing itself is the weakest aspect of the issue. Apollo’s side of the story follows the usual trope of poking the caged bear it becomes predictable from the beginning that the First Born would escape. Apollo, although arrogant in his portrayal, had never felt oblivious or stupid in previous issues, which is why it feels cheap that the First Born was able to escape so easily. The immediate story, too, seems predictable now as well: First Born overpowers Apollo and gains the throne just as Cassandra, Wonder Woman, and Zola get to Olympus and thus begins the climax of the storyline. Hopefully, though, Azzarello has a few twists and turns for the reader to avoid being too predictable.

This isn’t the only time that Azarrello has fallen into a trope or a repetitive pattern. He sometimes falls back on the same literary devices time and again, making them feel overused and tiresome. The transition between Zola and Dionysus going to hunt for “truffles” and Cassandra in the Alps is tied with overlapping ominous dialogue from Dionysus. What should convey the gravity of Zola’s situation, really only makes the reader roll their eyes because this has been done before time and again by Azzarello.

It also doesn’t help that Zola’s side of the story remains confusing as disjointed, as too many questions are left unanswered as the story progresses. The reader, like Zola, is left in the dark about what exactly a “truffle” is; without knowing this crucial information, the reader is wondering more about the nature of a “truffle,” rather than the events going on. Keeping Zola in the dark makes sense, but withholding information from the reader, in this case, is just frustrating and confusing because we don’t fully know the gravity of the situation Zola is in.

The entire sequence of events feels inorganic and forced. The story lacks a certain predictability—for some reason, what’s happening isn’t necessarily what we’ve come to expect from these characters. Sometimes, if a story takes a turn we weren’t expecting, that adds excitement for the reader; in the case of Wonder Woman, some of these events feel too convenient or out of place.

Hera’s monologue was initially jarring and unexpected as Wonder Woman and Hermes returned to Zola’s apartment. Hera seemingly takes two character steps back as the uses Wonder Woman’s dialogue – “I have nothing left to lose” – as a springboard to elaborate on why she’s so upset, making herself the center of attention. This specific scene, although feeling out of place, provides Wonder Woman a great opportunity to shine as she tells Hera to pray to herself. Between Azzarello’s writing of the scene and Cliff Chiang’s visuals, the scene feels incredibly poignant and wise on Diana’s part.

Chiang has, as usual, out done himself with the visuals. His rendition of Diana, especially, is visually stunning and always portrays her as powerful without needlessly accentuating the usual parts of her body. His thick inking would initially sound like a strange artistic choice, but the smooth, thick lines add a dynamic quality to the visuals that allow the reader’s eyes to travel along the pages without pause.

Likewise, Matthew Wilson on colors adds that extra layer to the story by creating resonance between the visuals and story being told. Again, the best example would be Hera’s scene, where it starts with her shrouded in darkness and light shining on Diana. As the scene progresses, more and more light slowly starts to shine on Hera as Wonder Woman helps her; this shows that Wilson is so in tune with the story he’s adding meaning to the visuals he creates. It’s these subtle things that usually go unnoticed that really tie a book together from start to finish.

It’s frustrating that such a visually stunning book doesn’t have the same quality content. In the coming issues, we can only hope Azzarello will deliver an exciting climax that makes previous issues pale in comparison as this story arc ends.

Credit: DC Comics

Green Lantern: New Guardians #27
Written by Justin Jordan
Art by Andrei Bressan and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

Green Lantern: New Guardians #27 opens with Exeter, an intergalactic walrus-like warrior, seeing his people engaged in horrible acts of violence, to which he thinks “This is wrong.” How poignant these words become.

The statement, meant to allow readers to peer into Exeter’s thoughts to show that, yes, he has some sort of conscience, is more a precursor to the issue because so much of New Guardians is wrong. Its poor pacing, weak characterization, and its biggest flaw – Andri Bressan’s muddled, distracting composition – all add up to make New Guardians a chaotic and unenjoyable read.

Visually, the comic is all over the place. Characters bleed from one panel to the next while excessive shading and seeping ink lines work against the natural direction of the eyes. This makes focusing on any one person or action difficult. The latter half of the issue eschews background imagery and character design completely, letting parts of people’s bodies just sort of fade into the colors.

Body dysmorphia is also an issue, particularly for Carol Ferris. The size and shape of her hairdo is sometimes comedic, sometimes disturbing, and in one panel, her body is so disfigured that it’s difficult to tell what direction she’s supposed to be facing, or where her focal point is. Too often, characters look “placed” in the setting as an afterthought, making some of the images look like a series of slapped together Colorforms.

Because the art is distracting, focusing on the story is also difficult. Justin Jordan tries to give some personality to his players, such as building a romance between Carol and Kyle (hell, even Exeter can see it), and using the Guardians as the proverbial fish out of water and therefore attemtping to create a comedic element, but all of this is denuded in the wake of the visual inconsistencies.

Plus, even though this is a Green Lantern book, not a lot of ring constructing happens. There’s plenty of punching and action, but mostly on the part of Exeter. Kyle’s more of a ignorant bit player who just happens to be tenuously involved in the plot. None of his heroic stock is on display, and most of his time is spent reacting to what’s occurring, spitting out sarcastic quips, or hamming up an “aw, shucks” persona.

Kyle Rayner is wielding the most powerful of most powerful weapons in the universe. Through Blackest Night, Geoff Johns built up the White Ring as all-encompassing ring – the one that can channel all of the emotional spectrum. So why is its wearer relegated to such a supplicant position? I get that Kyle is still learning how to wield the ring, but his trials in learning to harness the power of the White Ring should at least be entertaining, and nowhere near as banal.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Empire of the Dead #1
Written by George A. Romero
Art by Alex Maleev and Matt Hollingsworth
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Another week, another zombie book, right?

Well, not exactly.

Taking place five years after the events of the original Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s Empire of the Dead takes an idea posited in Land of the Dead – that the zombies still have some memory of their former selves – and expands upon it. Many of the undead shown in this issue are depicted doing something they used to do, like sweep, hang laundry, or even play chess, but the conflict definitely revolves around those who believe the dead still have a soul, and those who believe they’re like feral animals.

Empire of the Dead has the usual Romero tropes – greedy men who want complete control, naive protagonists who believe that a soul still resides in the flesh hungry bodies of the zombies, and the human penchant for violence as a form of entertainment -- but he throws a huge curveball with the final page, one that definitely piqued my interest, especially for how it will play into the story going forward.

The comic is pretty standard zombie fare, and I have to confess to being a bit disappointed with the characters. Romero’s leads are Penny Jones, a doctor who believes the dead can be tamed, and Paul Barnum, a grizzled zombie veteran who sees the dead as nothing more than an inconvenience meant to be exploited. They’re as one dimensional as you’d expect, and they’re both reminders of how the real stars of zombie stories are the zombies.

But, where the comic gets most creative is in following one zombie, a former SWAT officer named Frances Xavier, and giving us a window into her thoughts to show that, yes, zombies have some sort of brain activity beyond wanting to eat brains. The zombie narration is super clever, and an idea I hope Romero revisits over the course of the series.

The best part of the issue is Alex Maleev. There’s a level of grittiness to his art, one that matches the tone of the world with aplomb. Maleev accentuates Penny’s naiveté with soft facial features, plays up Barnum’s tough exterior with sharp cross hatching and inky shadows, and draws zombies that are beautifully grotesque, a mixture of decay, blood and teeth that bring a visceral vitality to the comic.

In the wake of series like The Walking Dead, the comic market has become saturated with zombie books (and not all of them good), so it’s exciting to get one from the Undead Godfather himself, even if it sticks with a certain level of familiarity. Empire of the Dead is proof of the old axiom, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – but there’s nothing wrong with a new paint job and a set of fresh tires, especially if Romero’s new and engaging concepts are creative enough to draw readers back for a second helping of the stuff he’s serving.

Credit: DC Comics

The Unwritten: Apocalypse #1
Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross and Chris Chuckry
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by Vertigo
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

"The page is to the story as the seed is to the flower."

With this being the relaunch to one of Vertigo's most consistently compelling books, if you missed The Unwritten the first time around, don't run away from this, and dive right in with everything you've got. Mike Carey and Peter Gross put everything they've got into this title, and you should probably return the favor in kind. For long-time readers who might have felt a bit burned-out from last year’s crossover with another Vertigo staple, Fables, The Unwritten: Apocalypse seems like it's is the beginning of The Unwritten returning to its old self.

This issue acts as both a refresher course for the overall theme of the book, as well as a jumping-on point as Tommy Taylor is transported from the beginning of life to his home time through the power of the written word and stories that have embedded themselves in folklore. To accompany each story was the fact that Gross changed his art style each time. Starting with a loose sketch look to "The Grasshopper and the Ant" to the style of John Tenniel from "Alice in Wonderland," Gross transforms the narrative and the world around it accordingly. With each leap Tommy takes to get back home, you can't help but applaud Gross’s ever-evolving style. Add in Chris Chuckry's colors and his ever-changing palette to go along with Gross’s sequentials, you've got a mighty fine-looking book.

Carey takes a little time getting to the center of the story, but has a nice moment that basically catches everything up pretty well and quickly with Tommy explaining who he is and where he's been. The exposition have been dragged out more, but Carey cuts right to the quick after the set up and we find ourselves immersed once again in this fantastic world of fantasy and lore. The ending might may have a few new reader's heads scratching, but in a delightful way as cronies Lizzie and Savoy are there waiting at the end, and the fate of the world does not bode well.

As per usual, The Unwritten: Apocalypse answers some questions but then proceeds to ask a few more along the way. Carey and Gross are in top form here as they give fans, old and new, a reason to come back to this world they've created as well as a reason to want to turn the next page on this story.

Credit: Action Lab

Skyward #5
Written by Jeremy Dale
Art by Jeremy Dale, Stephen Downer, Laura Martin and Hoyt Silva
Lettering by Thom Zahler
Published by Action Lab Comics
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Jeremy Dale has been an independent voice in comics for several years now having done a stint on IDW's GI Joe license and a few others, but if you've known Jeremy for long you'll realize his passion project Skyward is pretty much a love letter to the type of comics that made him fall in love with the medium. Well, in the past year it was picked up by Action Lab as an ongoing and while it's been going fairly strong, Skyward #5 isn't the most new-reader friendly. Longtime fans of the series will no doubt enjoy this issue, but there's a good possibility new audiences coming around to the title will likely be confused.

Now there is a bit of a recap at the beginning in a small blurb, but this issue particularly didn't feel like it caught new readers up entirely. Now, you don't have to go out of the way to insult some people's intelligence by spelling it out for them, but it seemed like it needed a small injection of extra narration or exposition in the beginning. Though once you get past the mild case of befuddlement, things start coming together. Dale puts on the charm with the moment with the Rabites and Jon sparing Shua's life – I mean, honestly, any comic that has anthropomorphic warrior rabbits has already piqued my interest. After that, we have the other two storylines of Mia and Dom investigating rumors of a supposed attack, but it's the Garrick and Skerrigan skirmish that might have some people confused on their relationship. Again, a small dose of extra narrative goes a long way.

That being said, Dale's cartoonish and expressive linework does the story plenty of favors. Dale's style sort of reminds me of an early J. Scott Campbell with the expressive eyes and facial gestures but with a toned-down rendering. Some figure work is questionable with Skerrigan's movements seemed implausible at times while fighting Garrick. He's assisted by two great colorists, Stephen Downer and Marvel fan-favorite colorist Laura Martin, and they add a richness to this mythical world and give Dale's lines a boost in tone and atmosphere.

Skyward fills the void in the market of a great fantasy comic with distinguishing characters and has an all-ages approach that doesn't feel like he's dumbing things down for his older readers. Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Mike Weiringo's Tellos should definitely give this book a try, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend with this issue as your starting point.

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