Written by Gail Simone
Art by Fernando Pasarin, Jonathan Glapion, Matt Ryan and Blond
Lettering by Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Barbara Gordon crouches triumphantly on a billboard on the cover of Batgirl #34, blood staining her lip as the sign boldly says "Undefeated." It's a great bit of cover design by Alex Garner, one that acts as a victory lap for this creative team, as Gail Simone and Fernando Pasarin give their goodbyes to one of DC's most important superheroines. This comic may have its flaws, but the striking artistic presentation makes this issue a fitting sendoff to this creative team.
Since early in Gail Simone's relaunch of the character, Barbara Gordon has been dealing with Knightfall, a ruthless vigilante mastermind with the money and followers to make Gotham's underworld bleed. In Simone's final issue, Babs brings the fight back to Knightfall, crashing the party with Black Canary and Huntress. Simone fans in general will thrill at the Birds of Prey reunion, as they each get in some good hits but never distract from the main character. Simone knows how to craft a fight scene, particularly with her quippy banter, such as when Batgirl KO's Bonebreaker, who was rambling about how Knightfall was going to make her a princess: "Okay. Be Sleeping Beauty, then."
Unfortunately, Simone does get a little overzealous with additional guest stars, which kind of makes the conclusion feel a bit uncontrolled. Batgirl may beat Knightfall, but the win never feels earned - it's one of the pitfalls of a shared universe, but having the main character call in an army of her superhero friends to help her save the day feels like a cop-out, especially when they're pitted against a no-name with local ambitions like Knightfall. (Once you have Red Lanterns getting called in, the suspension of disbelief gets tested a bit.) Additionally, Knightfall gives up incredibly easily - she not only wimps out without even a punch, but she also gives Batgirl some crucial information that she has zero reason to have, let alone give to her worst enemy.
But it's a lot easier to swallow these inconsistencies with Fernando Pasarin on art. Pasarin is one of those unsung heroes who just elevates the scripts he's given - and in this issue in particular, he just swings for the fences. His characters look strong and superheroic, but never exploitative, and his page layouts are really on point. (Particularly a page where Bonebreaker and Barbara face off on opposite sides of a page, all while Pasarin cuts away to key points in Gotham in between them.) Pasarin's compositions really are strong here, with every character introduction being the clear focus of the page. And while I complained about guest stars like Starfire, Fairchild or Red Lantern Bleez showing up, it's undeniable that Pasarin makes them look great - ultimately making this questionable plot point still a victory in my book. Wherever Pasarin winds up after Batgirl, I hope it's something equally A-list. He deserves it.
While the cover claims that Batgirl has been "undefeated," I don't know if I'd go that far - indeed, I feel like her struggles have defined her character as well as this run in particular. For every step forward she makes as Batgirl, Babs ultimately winds up taking a step back personally, and it's that dichotomy that's made for some particularly effective melodrama in this series. While one could argue that sometimes Batgirl was too often stuck in a rut, she felt a lot more three-dimensional than some of the other poor dudes in the other Bat-books. This issue may have had its share of too-neat wrap-ups, but it does provide a clean wrap-up for Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher and Babs Tarr's highly anticipated run on the book. As far as goodbyes go, this may be the best way to wrap up this era of Batgirl.
Original Sin #7
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Mike Deodato and Frank Martin
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10
Marvel may call its fans “True Believers,” but believing in Original Sin is proving to be a tougher task than usual. And I’ve wanted to badly to believe in this one. It’s been a while since we had an event book that started as well as this one did. The murder mystery plot was interesting! The big action set pieces (superheroes in flying cars chasing Mindless Ones through Manhattan, Gamora, Rocket and Winter Soldier finding a murdered planet) were exciting! The character combinations made way for good interactions and moments of meaningful dialogue! But about halfway through, the book stopped being “Who killed The Watcher?” and started to become “What is Nick Fury’s deal?” With that came a lot of exposition and characters standing around. As the book enters its conclusion, our heroes are paranoid and angry and they’ve geared up to fight Nick Fury, but the endgame is unclear.
Jason Aaron has injected Original Sin with a heap of big ideas, but the longer the book has gone on, the more the potential has been squashed by the revelation of Nick Fury’s secret crusade. For all the punching that goes on here, we only get to see how Marvel’s future publishing plans tie into this event and at the end we’re left no closer to a satisfying resolution than we were at the beginning. We essentially know how the Watcher died and who killed him, but the answer to that question hasn’t been relevant to the plot of the book for a few issues now. With half the cast fighting Fury in space, the other half spends their time just standing around shouting at each other. “I’m still not even sure why I’m here,” Rocket Raccoon says in one panel. And it’s a feeling that can be applied to most of these characters at this point. It’s hard to pin down their purpose, as they seemingly are just waiting around for something to fight (which is, at least, something that Aaron does deliver).
I really do like Mike Deodato’s work on this book as a whole. His art suited the mysterious tone of the book, and it’s very suited for all the action in space. Deodato’s usage of Dutch angles to convey the paranoia and tension in some scenes is appropriate most of the time but using it on entire pages does err on the side of overkill. The same way that Aaron has been beating us over the head with the importance of Nick Fury’s secret role in keeping order in the Marvel Universe, Deodato seems to be constantly reminding us that something is amiss, something is making these characters uneasy. There’s something we still haven’t been told or at least Aaron and Deodato would want you to think so. Deodato’s character’s themselves are very strong and it’s splash pages are generally impactful, though I think the double page spread at the start loses some visual clarity due to an overambitious panel layout.
Maybe this is what event comics are in 2014. They are background context for the publishing plans of the future that are less concerned with the story at hand and more concerned with offering up reasons for the books to come. Will we ever see the adventures that Nick Fury says have gone on right under the rest of the Marvel Universe’s nose? Will we eventually be told that maybe even this iteration of Fury isn’t the real one? At this point, does it matter who is actually in an event book?
There’s only one issue left in this event and there are still so many questions and so few answers. These are not only questions about whatever shred of a plot might be left, but also about the validity of event books in general. Obviously, they’re meant to help introduce change in a world that can be fairly inflexible sometimes. It’s much easier than to introduce new publishing initiatives, but readers will grow frustrated with a main title that doesn’t deliver a satifying story. If most of the changes are introduced in tie-in books around the Marvel Universe, might the line be better served with crossovers that didn’t feature a main narrative book? Maybe those questions are all we can take out of Original Sin. As it stands, this book is every bit as disappointing now as it was promising at the start of the series, and that’s a shame.
Written by Scott Snyder and Gerry Duggan
Art by Matteo Scalera and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
As the dust settles on the sprawling blockbuster "Zero Year," we are treated to a palate cleanser issues, similar to the done-in-ones following the "Court of Owls" arc or the death of Damian Wayne. With Batman #34, Snyder enlists the talents of up-and-coming Big Two pinch-hitter Gerry Duggan for a simple yet engaging Batman tale that connects the main title with the events of the weekly Batman: Eternal. While the connective tissue between this issue and the ever-expanding weekly title is tenuous at best, Batman #34 is an entertaining and gorgeous looking done-in-one story that should please fans of both the main title and DC’s weekly Bat-offerings.
Batman #34 starts with a horrifying cold open, depicting the sadistic M.O. of a new killer that is stalking the patients of Dr. Leslie Thompkins. Batman #34 enlists the vast talents of Black Science artist Matteo Scalera and Deadly Class colorist Lee Loughridge, and from this first page, you can tell that this issue is going to be all about their art. The first page cold open is a simple six-panel grid that is packed to the gills with foreboding and tension as we see the first on panel death, coupled with a truly unsettling bit of cruelty thanks to Gotham’s new killer, aptly named the Meek. From this first page on, Duggan’s script is a no-frills Batman yarn that heavily features Batman more as an investigative force instead of the hard-hitting avenger that we saw all throughout Zero Year. Batman #34 seems content enough to tell a street-level detective story set against the sprawling backdrop of Batman: Eternal, and therein lies the issue’s real strength.
Gerry Duggan does just enough to connect this issue with Eternal without sidelining his own story or overwhelming readers who may have dropped the weekly title. As Batman leaps headlong into the investigation, he ruminates on the events of Eternal thus far, which is presented to the reader in a gorgeous two-page splash from Scalera and Loughridge. This page is really where the connection to Eternal starts and ends, and honestly, it is more than enough. Duggan has much more interesting things to get to in Batman #34 so he simply touches base with the events of the weekly and uses them to inform Batman’s state of mind as he tracks down the Meek. Bruce admonishes himself for being distracted with the events of Eternal, but re-orients himself quickly when he discovers that the Meek has most likely been operating for a long time without his noticing. After the epic Zero Year, Batman #34 is an effective, small-scale Batman tale that illustrates just how versatile Batman is as a character. We all know that Batman is right at home stuck in the center of huge, city-shaking epics, but sometimes he is better suited to street-centered murder investigations.
While Gerry Duggan proves once again that he has a firm handle on the scripting of Big Two superheroes, Batman #34 is all about Matteo Scalera and Lee Loughridge. These palate cleanser issues that bookend Snyder’s larger story arcs have given us fantastic artwork from artists like Dustin Nguyen, Becky Cloonan and Andy Kubert, but now we can add Scalera and Loughridge’s names to that illustrious list. Matteo Scalera’s Batman is a longer and leaner Batman than we are used to seeing, but he is still the hero we deserve to ogle. Scalera’s panels flow with a kinetic energy that is more than welcome in the pages of Batman and offers a more intimate look at Bats and his world, a stark but great-looking contrast against the multi-million dollar movie look of Greg Capullo’s work.
Scalera also works hard at selling some of the creepier moments in Batman #34, but he never makes it look like work at all. Take, for instance, the horribly silent scene of the Meek revealing to the reader just how he disposes of the bodies that he accumulates. It is pretty harrowing stuff, and even though this scene is largely dialogue and caption-free, Scalera tells you everything you need to know with a simple sneer of the Meek’s lips and a bit of clever panel blocking. While the rich colors of Fco Plascencia have been a major highlight of Batman so far, Lee Loughridge makes one hell of a case for his own colors with Issue #34. Loughridge’s moody and ever-shifting color scheme is more than well suited to Scalera’s scratchy and lean lines. Loughridge pours an evocative color palette over every setting, and each choice is perfectly suited to the tone of the scene. The Batcave is saturated with cool blues and LED-like greens, while Gotham goes through a hazy gold dusk into a purple-black night. Lee Loughridge has been consistently crushing it month after month on Deadly Class, but Batman #34 just hammers home just how important a colorist is to a book.
As much as I have love Scott Snyder’s epic take on Batman, I really look forward to issues like #34. Of course readers respond to huge, sprawling stories and I love it just as much as the next guy, but there is something about seeing a writer take a step back and let someone else take a crack at an issue that couldn’t be further from what came before it. Gerry Duggan, Matteo Scalera and Lee Loughridge present us a tightly plotted, done-in-one story that feels right at home sat next to the blockbusters and weekly tales. Batman #34 doesn’t blow any doors off of anything nor does it offer some new game changing bit of characterization. It simply is, and what it is is a pretty good Batman story.
Captain America #23
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Carlos Pacheco, Mariano Taibo and Dean White
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
It's always darkest before the dawn. And finally - after far too long in the dark - it feels like Captain America is finally turning back towards the light. Even thought this is the second issue of Remender's "The Tomorrow Soldier" arc, this particular comic feels like an important step in Remender's run on the character, injecting this series with a much-needed optimism and hope.
Following his run-in with the Iron Nail, Steve Rogers is no longer the super-soldier we've known him to be - drained of his vitality and strength, Old Man Rogers now waits patiently in Avengers Mansion, as a warrior from another world comes for him. But while Cap himself may not be a super-soldier anymore, that's not to say he doesn't have some pretty powerful friends standing guard - and that's part of the reason why this comic reads so great. Rick Remender has always had a gift for pacing fight sequences, and this is no different - for once, the antagonist in this book really hits with confidence and tension, and even Steve gets a couple of great hits in. It almost feels like an Avengers book more than straight-up Captain America, but given where Steve stands in the power set department, it makes sense for him to turn to the larger Marvel universe for help.
But this comic isn't all fight - there's a nice twist here that really gives me a lot of confidence in where "The Tomorrow Soldier" is headed. While you can probably sense where Remender is coming early on in his fight sequence, you can't help but feel that this is exactly what this comic needs. Some big changes are a-comin' for Steve Rogers, and some twists to the various members of the supporting cast will keep this book moving, especially now that the title character is no longer in the field. Yet where Remender does slow down a bit is with Sam Wilson, the Falcon - or, as you might know him, the man soon to be Cap's successor behind the shield. Sam's romance with Jet Black isn't a fraction as scandalous as the crazy Internet brigade would lead you to believe, but it also doesn't quite have as much energy this go-round. It's not bad, but it doesn't do a whole lot towards selling Sam - who was the most enjoyable part of Captain America: The Winter soldier - as a new central character.
That said, if there's one thing that hampers this book, it's still the artwork. There's nothing wrong with Carlos Pacheco, per se - but he's also pure vanilla. There are a ton of great visual beats that Remender laces into his script, including the intruder from Dimension Z holding his own against Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk, not to mention not one, but three big reveals. But Pacheco doesn't bring any flashiness to this book, and while his panel-to-panel storytelling is smooth (particularly in the fight scenes), it's also not very memorable, leaving you feeling like this book is very by-the-numbers. It's all just a little too clean, a little too cartoony, without a lot of edge in his style to stand out and make a statement. Even colorist Dean White is surprisingly low-key here, his sickly greens and purples barely making an appearance.
Considering the general climate of the comics industry is to draw out a story while adding as little to the status quo for as long as possible, it's perhaps not surprising how refreshing Captain America #23 is. There's action, there's new developments, there's a ton of guest stars and even some great character beats for the lead character - Rick Remender is bringing his A-game here, which makes it all the more surprising considering that "The Tomorrow Soldier" didn't really crackle off the page as a high concept. It just goes to show you that good plotting and strong characterization trump elevator pitches, and it's something I hope to see more of from Remender. While the artwork still holds this book from being all that it could be, this is definitely the most enjoyable issue of Captain America in quite some time.
Written by Michael Alan Nelson
Art by Dan Mora and Gabriel Cassata
Lettering by Ed Dukeshire
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Michael Alan Nelson's magic-wielding thief is back in action, and her renewed adventures begin with a bang. Hexed's biggest legacy might be the rise of Emma Rios as an artistic powerhouse, but it's nice to see Luci Jennifer Inacio Das Neves - just call her Lucifer - back in the saddle.
In a lot of ways, this comic feels more like an episode of a TV show that's already had a comfortable run on the air. There's no fancy reintroduction of Lucifer, explaining her associates or her motives - instead, Michael Alan Nelson drops readers right in the thick of things, as Luci stops a group of high-tech thieves from stealing a magical painting that's really the portal to a prison dimension. What's great is that Nelson could just stop right there and let the caper unfold from there, but he also adds in some human elements - the score isn't everything to our hero, even if she wants to portray herself as a bad girl. There's a humanity to Lucifer that endears her to readers just as it further complicates the plot, as Nelson packs in probably three issues' worth of story into one 22-page book. Not bad.
But the big question readers might have with this book is that if Hexed wowed so many people because of Emma Rios, does the art continue to impress? For those getting their hopes up too high, I won't say that BOOM! has found a replacement as energetic and talented as Rios, but that's not to say that Dan Mora is a slouch, either. He does share Rios's cartoony influences, making each of the characters look streamlined and gorgeous. (Even if, admittedly, the women involved all look a little too similar.) Mora also does superb work conveying motion and energy, especially when colorist Gabriel Cassata gives certain scenes a painterly vibe. But where Mora could improve his game is in his page layouts and his panel compositions - this is a book that probably will look great on an iPhone, where the panels are broken down individually, but as a whole page, some of the action beats get swallowed up.
Like I said before, there's a little bit of fine-tuning that could be done to the art that might make this book read a bit smoother, and admittedly, the lack of a real emotional journey for Luci might make this series feel more disposable than it should. It's not enough to just have adventure - what do the characters learn from this journey? Still, in terms of sheer ideas and imagination, this comic has more creative "oomph" than most trades, and it provides a great starting point for Luci and her friends to get into trouble. Definitely recommended.
Written by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman
Art by Afua Richardson
Lettering by Troy Peteri
Published by Top Cow
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10
It's been a long, long time coming - but that's how Destiny works sometimes, isn't it? In the case of this particular Destiny, I'm talking about the lead antiheroine of Genius, the long-gestating series coming out of Top Cow. Originally the winner of the 2008 Pilot Season competition, there have been numerous check-ins, announcements and fake-outs regarding this unicorn of high concept - a street-smart gang tactician decides to bring it to the trigger-happy cops of L.A. But after years of waiting, this second installment doesn't quite have the charisma, the panache or the brains as before, as this second issue mostly continues the low-calorie explosions that ended the first issue.
Having grown up in Missouri myself, it was almost eerily prescient to have this comic come out now after all these delays, hitting the stands at the same time as the violence rises in Ferguson. It's proof that this series is clearly tapping into something in the cultural zeitgeist, but I'd argue the direction is flawed - this is romanticizing the cops-versus-gangs mentality, making things broader and more black-and-white rather than lending a new perspective. It's a parallel that's more than a little uncomfortable - but beyond that, just on a craft level, what Genius #2 reminded me more of was the battle scenes in Star Trek. I'm not talking about the J.J. Abrams reboot, I'm just talking about the TV show - where captains would issue orders in their space ships, lasers would fly on their view screen and bad guys would blow up with a roar and a shaky camera effect. That's what keeps this second issue of Genius from living up to its name - the lead character feels like a cipher, and the actual action is largely off-panel (and when it does appear, it's muddied by Afua Richardson's pitch-black color palette). Ultimately, it robs Destiny of her power, because right now, it's hard to believe her plan. It's hard to believe anyone here has a plan.
Destiny herself also is a problem, as it feels like we don't get to see very much of her. She spouts cool-sounding but ultimately vague directives like "make them pay for every goddamn inch we give them." Why would these gangs follow her? Why does she want to pick a fight with the cops, anyway? Some of this is alluded to in the first issue, but writers Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman spend so much time telling us that Destiny is awesome that they don't really prove it. To Bernardin and Freeman's credit, they instead bounce around from place to place, reminding me almost of Heat or Dog Day Afternoon, as we see the media jump in on this, as well as varying levels of law enforcement start to get involved. But like I said before, I think their involvement is too easy - the cops get trounced way too fast, and the media jumps on their side at the drop of a single YouTube clip. Maybe I'm being cynical, but I don't buy it.
The plus side about this book is artist Afua Richardson, whose artwork looks cartoony and expressive - that is, when you can see it. Richardson takes a bold choice in setting this issue at sundown, drenching a lot of his panels in pitch black in a Frazer Irving-like style. For example, there's a page of two cops skulking around the back alleys - or at least it looks that way. But it's almost impossible to tell except based on the dialogue cues, which is not how you want your sequential art to look. When the characters are indoors, however, Richardson's color choices really give this comic a ton of energy and ingenuity in design, down to the "Fly Emirite" shirt a helicopter pilot is wearing. Seeing an opportunistic reporter with her power suit and snarky expression just adds one more fun variable to this already complicated story. That said, like I said before, there's so much done off-panel, and the bursts of violence and gunfire are just flashes of color alongside really dark backgrounds. For an action-driven book, I do wish there was more to look at in terms of the visual sequences.
What is they say about people who are self-described geniuses? Maybe that they're not nearly as hot stuff as they would think. After years in the making, perhaps it would be impossible for Genius to live up to the hype. But a sophomore slump is not the same as saying this book is down and out - one would hope that with three more issues to tease out this story, there will be some more twists, turns and insights into who is Destiny, and what is her plan. But as a standalone issue, Genius #2 proves to be a decidedly mixed bag.
Written by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Art by Dongzi Liu
Published by Titan Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10
Royal Blood is a fantasy book set in an undetermined locale and period, though one can infer it likely takes place during the Middle Ages somewhere in Europe where Christianity has taken hold. It tells the story of the king of this unnamed realm, Alvar, and his struggles as the some-time king due to various twists of fate and fortune that take away and return his crown on multiple occasions. It is a comic that originally aimed to excite its audience with high drama and action when it was first published between 2010 and 2011 in French; however, I am not sure if this was lost in translation, but nearly everything about Jodorowsky's writing makes this a comic readers should avoid altogether, with the only redeeming aspects coming from Liu's art.
The most problematic elements of this comic are how flat and interchangeable the characters are, and in their interchangeability, how often they are grossly mishandled. This is emphasized in how often Jodorowsky has his character drastically shift from being madly in love with one another or zealously loyal to threatening and/or physically harming the person who was the object of their attentions not one or two panels earlier. Too often do we see Alvar turn on his lovers; likewise, his lovers simply turn on (or off) their feelings for him with no discernible catalyst. All of this results in characters whom reader cannot readily identify with – let alone understand or find believable.
Moreover, it seems these characters continually make the worst possible decisions further removing the readers from engaging or investing themselves in this overall narrative. For example, Alvar's treatment of the woman who cared for him over a period of eleven years is abhorrent. In many ways, she is "fridged" in medieval fashion simply to show the terrible nature of Alvar, who quickly attempts to demonstrate his nobility with a "kingly" gesture of thanks through giving her a ring. Even more disturbing, however, is that we find over 200 women are later killed off – whether shown or told – simply illustrate how immoral Alvar behaves. Later, after having been cursed by the spirit of the dead woman, Alvar encounters his long-lost daughter Sambra in the wilds during a hunt. Finding her ravishing, he sets his heart on making her his own, and in spite of their quickly discovering that they are father and daughter, they decide to give in to their carnal feelings. The writing comes across as incredibly rushed, which makes the scene even more disturbing as it gives the impression the writer simply wanted to skip any complications and get into the father-daughter sex scenes.
One of the most deplorable elements of this story – and there were plenty to choose from – occurs when the deposed queen and her son mutilate Sambra. They cut off her nose and breasts in retribution for her incestuous marriage to Alvar (who was still married at the time, in a poor man's allusion to King Henry VIII), all of which the unfortunate reader sees depicted. Instead of allowing this character to die with any sort of dignity, however, Jodorowsky continues to parade her about as a grotesque sort of spectacle. Alvar's sense of justice speaks volumes about the depth of his character, as he not only fails to punish his once queen and stepson – whom he earlier cut out his tongue to prevent certain secrets from being revealed about himself - but he incredulously thanks them for helping him to see past physical beauty and abdicates the crown in their favor! At least Alexandra DeWitt's death was treated as a sorrowful even; this display of callousness towards a character by an author is astounding to say the least.
Meanwhile, the art – when it is not depicting graphic sexual encounters between various family members – is well done. It uses a painted style with a slight manga-like approach with some design choices that were interesting (i.e. Alvar's armor during the opening combat scenes). I often found myself thinking how this artist would be much better suited working on a title such as Conan, Red Sonja or some other comic deserving of readers' attention and dollars. Unfortunately, this aspect of the book will largely be forgotten, as the only thing that will come to mind for those who finish this comic is poorly written, misogynistic, and off-putting it was.
Overall, there is absolutely no reason to pick this comic up or support those who peddled it. The plot line feels about as substantive as one might find in a soft porn movie, which is only reinforced by the self-indulgent and overly grandiose dialogue. What makes it especially problematic is that while there are certainly other comics being published today that actively engage in producing content that is far more offensive than what Royal Blood offers, there is a sense that those publishers offering such low brow material do so knowingly. Sadly, there is little – if anything – about the attempts to titillate through acts of incest, the mutilation of women and children, or the cliched and flat writing in this comic that indicates any such attempt to transgress social mores, generate shock responses for artistic reasons let alone providing basic and remotely thoughtful entertainment. Moreover, this comic serves as a failure on the part of the editorial and publishing teams who failed to say "no" to the possibility of publishing this comic. Perhaps there was an idea that Jodorowsky's name as a cinematic director would help sell this book, but sadly, whatever money is earned from this comic comes at the price of Titan's name and reputation.