Best Shots Comic Reviews: SUPERMAN #36, SUPERIOR IRON MAN #2, More

Superman #36
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Gotham by Midnight #1
Written by Ray Fawkes
Art by Ben Templesmith
Lettering by Dezi Sienty
? Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Ever since former Vertigo editor Mark Doyle took over, there’s been a sea change in the types of stories that come out of the Batman line at DC. In recognizing that the Caped Crusader is their most valuable asset, Doyle has been able to expand the line to include more genre-specific work that’s buoyed by some ever-present connection to Batman. Of course, this approach could stretch the character too thin and take some of the shine off of the books that fans consider the “main books.” But, as with the recently relaunched Batgirl and brand-new Gotham Academy, combining all-star talent with a strong concept proves to be a net positive for Gotham By Midnight. Ray Fawkes and Ben Templesmith craft a suitably supernatural spin on the Gotham Police Department and give readers another reason to explore Gotham’s sordid secret history.

At first glance, Gotham By Midnight is a mash-up of Gotham Central and DC’s latest foray into television, Constantine. The World’s Greatest Detective makes only a brief appearance, but that’s all Fawkes needs to help build the world in this book. But Fawkes’ work on the Constantine comic lacked the edge that made Hellblazer so successful and his power set was not very clearly defined, making it a hard sell for new readers who might be interested. Gotham by Midnight is much more new-reader-friendly in part because protagonist Jim Corrigan, a.k.a. The Spectre, is less clearly established by his past (especially in the New 52) and his powers only require a quick line of dialogue to understand. Fawkes quickly introduces the concept and supporting cast, and the means by which he sets up exposition (a member of Internal Affairs investigating the task force) is very natural.

Fawkes may provide a solid foundation for this title but comics are a visual medium, and Ben Templesmith is really the unsung hero of this launch. Fact of the matter is, this is basically a police procedural with a little Gotham-y flavor. Templesmith’s work evokes the darkness of the threats that this squad faces. Templesmith’s cartooning is effective, giving each character a distinct look and a myriad of expressions. Even Templesmith’s take on Batman is dialed up for the supernatural setting of the story; the long ears on his cowl making him look almost more monster than man. Templesmith washes his pages in gorgeous watercolors, shades of blue, gray, brown and of course green, a clear reference to Corrigan’s alter ego. There’s an eeriness that hangs heavy over the whole book. Something’s not quite right but that’s what makes it compelling.

This is an efficacious start for this book. Fawkes puts all the major players in place. The hook is efficient and easy to understand. Templesmith’s color work provides a few excellent moments that help improve a story that’s similar to ones we’ve seen before. A supernatural police procedural is nothing new, but Fawkes and Templesmith are able to put their own little twists on it. Mark Doyle’s continued reinvention of the Batman line is a bright spot in the DC publishing line and other editors would be smart to take note. Superheroes are incredibly flexible characters that can allow for almost limitless permutations of their concept. Gotham By Midnight is a good example of that now and it looks to only be getting better moving forward.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Superior Iron Man #2
Written by Tom Taylor
Art by Yildiray Cenar and Guru eFX
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Tony Stark has always been the kind of guy you sort of love to hate. He's too charming, too smart, too handsome, and he knows it. But his arrogance has always come with a sardonic, self-deprecating undertone. Tony has failed too many times to fail to realize that even he has feet of clay, and that keeps him grounded, human. With Superior Iron Man, Tom Taylor has done away with Stark's likability, a bold choice for a leading man known for being too cool to hate.

While Superior Iron Man #1 carried just enough of the Tony we know and love - and enough of a foil, in the form of Pepper Potts - to feel like the last frontier for Tony, Issue #2 takes Tony a step closer to full-on villainy, and a step further away from his charm. Confronting the citizens of San Francisco in the street, Stark proves just how far he will go to make his Extremis app ubiquitous.

It's not particularly surprising that Tony's going so far over the edge. Taylor is kind of a superhero comic shock jock, always pushing the boundaries of taste, erring on the side of excitment and intrigue. And that sensibility really played out in issue #1, balanced by Stark's trademark sense of humor and Pepper's grounding presence. But in Issue #2, Tony comes off a lot more like Lex Luthor than Iron Man, and while that is undoubtedly the intent, there isn't quite enough substance to really make the conceit palatable.

Taylor's approach isn't exactly subtle; subtext runs counter to his endgame of pulpy, page-turning momentum. So when he comes as close as he does to exploring the real world struggle between tech-boomers and longtime residents in San Francisco without sticking the landing, it feels more like a painfully missed opportunity than a cue.

Fortunately, fellow DC transplant Yildiray Cinar picks up some of Taylor's slack. Cinar inks himself on Superior Iron Man, allowing his clean, well weighted lines to convey Stark's newest bleeding edge tech. Cinar's dark, rough-hewn take on Daredevil is a nice counterpoint to the almost sterile Iron Man. However, Cinar's art lacks some element of personality. His take on San Francisco, a uniquely recognizable city, feels too generic and homogenous to make Tony's change of scenery feel authentic. Still, Cinar's storytelling and page design are fundamentally strong, an asset to Superior Iron Man.

Tom Taylor's new vision of a Superior Iron Man, flipped on his axis will undoubtedly draw comparison to Superior Spider-Man, but Tony's arc still lacks the epic feel of Peter/Otto's journey. It's still early in Superior Iron Man's run, but Issue #2's twist seems more important to Daredevil than to Tony Stark, especially after last issue's twist-ending.

Taylor's reputation says he'll find a way to end every issue on a soap-operatic moment whether it serves the book or not. Time will tell if he'll be able to balance his sense of urgency with keeping Tony likable, or at least compelling. Right now, Superior Iron Man is working a little too hard to feel as cutting-edge as its tech.

Credit: DC Comics

Superman #36
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson and Laura Martin
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

The Fourth Dimension. A new world, the manifestation of time, and now... an in-demand travel spot?

That's admittedly a glib way of describing Superman #36, which would likely work as a smart twist in a self-contained television episode, but is hampered by the monthly model of superhero comics. Geoff Johns has added an interesting wrinkle in the saga of Ulysses, but it comes too late to inform this story's theme, and it's undone so quickly that the philosophical underpinnings are lost. The result is a comic that looks great, has a clear voice and maybe even has a place to go - it just doesn't stand on its own very well.

Since taking over the book, Johns has focused a lot on building up the character Ulysses, a clear analogue for Superman whose Earth-born parents sent him into the Fourth Dimension under what they thought were apocalyptic circumstances. Whereas Superman had the benefit of Ma and Pa Kent to teach him humility and humanity, Ulysses is more of a naive demigod figure - and when he sees the turmoil inherent in human existence, he decides he's had enough. Cue a potentially destabilizing offer: Ulysses is going back to the Fourth Dimension, and he's allowing six million humans to come with him.

Let the idea mill around in your head for a second. It's a good one. It's the sort of stuff that could anchor an entire TV series, or at the very least, anchor a strong television episode. Johns' only problem is with the pacing of it - namely, that we've spent the past five issues building up Ulysses' character, so this twist winds up coming off as more expository than anything else. Johns tries out some fun concepts, like how desperate people would absolutely flock towards extradimensional salvation - it just comes so late in the game that the shift in tone and content feels strange. While Johns later lays in a twist that's marvelously sinister, it does come at the cost of the implications of Ulysses' offer - what would happen if it were a deal made in good faith? With all the cutaways to people's reactions, it feels too early, relatively speaking, to pull the rug out from under us.

It also opens up this story to an ongoing critique - namely, this feels more like Ulysses' story than Superman's. For all his faults as a derivative, be-mulleted energy-wielder, at the very least, Ulysses brings a strong perspective to actions: Earth sucks, and we deserve something better. Superman tries his best to dissuade Ulysses, but a simple "no, that's not true" doesn't outweigh the strength of true convictions. Why does Superman like humanity, anyway? Why does he like planet Earth? With this sudden "Exodus of Earth" story, Johns has wandered into some incredibly fertile thematic territory, a chance to really give some perspective post-New 52 on who Superman really is, what he stands for, why he does what he does.

I've been rambling a lot about the writing, and that does a disservice to the artwork. Romita takes a little bit of time to warm up, having to go through panels cutting back and forth between Ulysses and people around the world watching his message. That said, he does add in more drama to what could otherwise be a very talky script than almost any other artist I've seen working with Johns - for example, I love the lightning striking in the background, as Superman and Ulysses debate in the midst of a raging storm. The fight sequences are also superb, particularly one double-page panel that really illustrates just how hard Ulysses is hitting. The one downside is the coloring, as Laura Martin gets painted into a corner - between all the night scenes, the rain storm and Ulysses' energy signature, she's forced to use a ton of blue, which starts feeling old just when Romita's action scenes are supposed to liven things up.

That's not to say that Superman #36 is a bad book, or even one that won't feel like a decent chapter in the context of the story as a whole. But as far as singular installments, it does feel like an uneven experience. Ulysses is a character with a lot of potential, and on paper, Geoff Johns' high concept is actually one that could fuel not just one story, but several. But the placement of this chapter feels strange, and the lengthy exposition leaves readers feeling unprepared for the striking fight sequence that comes after. All in all, this does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity to say more about Superman, Ulysses, and humanity as a whole - things that make all the rainy debates and energy-laden fight scenes in the world feel secondary.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Scarlet Spiders #1
Written by Mike Costa
Art by Paco Diaz and Israel Silva
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Three spiders, trapped in a world they never made! Coming off the lucrative heels of Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Verse is Scarlet Spiders, a book that's heavy on action and light on substance. Mike Costa manages to skate by on the inherent charm of Ben Reilly, Kaine and Ultimate Jessica Drew as well as the energetic artwork of Paco Diaz, but only diehard Spider-fans need apply to this directionless actioner.

For those who didn't read Amazing Spider-Man #10, the Scarlet Spiders hopped into an interdimensional portal to find the cloning facilities of the Inheritors, a group of vampiric heavyweights that prey on spider-powered people. (Comics, everybody!) Beyond that, it's fight city ahead - Mike Costa is able to get by because most readers like Spider-Man and think he's a charmer, but he doesn't do much to actually prove the point. The jokes are mostly bland (although a bit about Iron Man's booby-trapped armor is chuckle-worthy), and the plotting is about as loose as it comes. The Spiders arrive, they get into hospital gowns (?), they fight robots, they get Iron Man-delivered exposition, and then they fight some more.

It feels sloppy in the structure, but that would be more forgivable with stronger characters. However, even with three very different histories - not to mention a shared experience as clones - the Scarlet Spiders are paper-thin. To try to make up for the similar-sounding voices, Costa punctuates his scenes with some rarely-used third-person narration - that said, it's some of the most overwrought purple prose since Chris Claremont. ("Kaine moves like the bolts of rage that galvanize him, leaping from foe to foe, devastating one after another." "Jessica reads the battle like tea leaves, swirling through their eddies, reading a half-second into the future." It's some surprisingly rough work coming from him.)

That said, it's hard to deny Paco Diaz's appeal in terms of the art. While his anatomy is a bit distended and weird, he does draw the hell out of some action sequences, and his characters have that sort of deliberate expressiveness. It reads like J. Scott Campbell's bodies with Stefano Caselli's faces. (Admittedly, that doesn't help when two out of his three main characters are often in full face masks.) There's a double-page fight sequence that really shows off Diaz's potential, as he uses some diagonal paneling to make everything seem more dynamic, and he gives enough variation to the different Spiders' body language to make them look interesting. Israel Silva also colors the hell out of this book, adding a ton of energy and weight to the pages. While occasionally there are some hiccups for some of the smaller panels - for example, a group of robots appearing basically out of nowhere - it's some strong artwork, even if it assuredly won't be for everyone.

But with so many other Spider-books out there, just relying on readers' goodwill is not going to pass muster. Scarlet Spiders is lacking a narrative throughline, something to make us care about these characters (especially considering Kaine and Jessica weren't doing so hot in their original, low-selling titles, either). There's certainly a lot of pretty artwork to this book, and that might seal the deal for rabid Spider-fans, but for everyone else, Scarlet Spiders is far from a red-letter kind of book.

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