Best Shots Reviews: ACTION COMICS #41, SECRET WARS #3, JUSTICE LEAGUE #41, More

DC Comics June 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Action Comics #41
Written by Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder
Art by Aaron Kuder, Tomeu Morey and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

What do you get for the man who has everything?

In the case of Action Comics, it's simple - you make him give something away. You take his gifts away and make him grateful for what remains. While the whys and wherefores behind Superman's depowering are still up in the air, Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder deliver a down-to-earth and surprisingly fun new chapter for the Man of Steel.

In many ways, though, it's easy to be wary of Superman's crewcut and motorcycle, as his new design seems to play into a sensibility that's pretty alien for most comic book readers. In a lot of ways, however, Pak and Kuder's characterization makes this sort of a do-over of J. Michael Straczynski's alienating "Grounded" storyline, but done right.

Whereas he was once an unbeatable alien demigod, Superman has been transformed - literally cast out of the Fortress of Solitude and outed to the world - and he's on just as much of a journey to discover himself as we are. It's a new status quo that's risky, but one that's also rife with possibilities, as Clark's now-human perspective makes him so much more relatable. "For the first time in a long time," Clark says, as he marvels over small pleasures like a caffeine rush or hunger, "I have to take my time."

In addition to Superman's more low-key status quo, there's also a more homey atmosphere to the rest of Metropolis, as well. What would happen if we not only knew a Superman was among us, but that he was just an ordinary, approachable guy? Pak and Kuder play around with different elements of this, ranging from a wannabe tough guy who wants to try to rip off Earth's mightiest hero, or the small moments, like a cashier recognizing that his shirtless, muscular customer might just be the Clark Kent, or Clark's old neighbors treating him to a homecoming that might be more warm than anything I've read in a comic before.

In a lot of ways, that good feeling is contagious - while there is some action here, this book is really all about starting over. Just like Action Comics was the book to set the tone of the New 52, it's fitting that the book again sets back the clock - and if the tone of this issue is any indication, it feels like "DCYou" might be working overtime to make amends to lapsed readers.

In terms of the artwork, Kuder continues to outdo himself. In particular, you sense how much he seems to relish Superman's newfound humanity - you can see it in Clark's eyes, whether he's closing them after a blissful bite of a convenience store burrito, or a look of curiosity as he notices a motorcycle for sale. His characters are always expressive, almost rubbery with their features, but in a way that never feels goofy or over-the-top - instead, Kuder feels like a spiritual successor to a Frank Quitely, who always finds new ways to lend energy to every page, whether its Clark lifting up a bunch of eager kids on his arms, or leaping across a burning building to punch out a shadow creature.

Despite his status as a pop culture icon, it's no secret that Superman has had more than his fair share of issues over the past decade or so. Aside from brief moments like Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, it's clear that DC Comics has been struggling with cracking the formula behind the Man of Steel, trying to inject some relatability and some tension to their invincible alien demigod. Purists will cry foul at their latest solution, as the line between Clark Kent and Superman becomes nigh-near obliterated. Yet there's a goodness and humanity that Clark hasn't lost with his powers - and it's that characterization that I think will serve this new status quo well. Time will tell if DC's latest experiment with Superman will yield long-lasting results, but as far as this debut issue goes, this is an excellent second chance at making a good first impression.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Secret Wars #3
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Esad Ribic and Ive Svorcina
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“I’m beginning to think that in my perfect world... I am the one flawed thing.”

Heavy is the head that wears the crown in Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s Secret Wars #3. With a concept like “Battleworld” at the center of this event, it would be easy for Hickman to simply have the Marvel Universe’s greatest heroes and villains face-off in a winner-gains-control-of-the-entire-multiverse skirmish. But instead, Hickman makes Secret Wars an arresting character study of the omnipotent deity known as Victor Von Doom, and in doing so, Hickman injects the narrative with Shakespearean melodrama rather than banal punching, separating this event from any other in the last decade. It helps that he has a masterful artist and storyteller in his own right on board in Esad Ribic. Ribic makes Secret Wars feel utterly otherworldly, fitting for a story that on some level only exists in the mind of a madman.

If Doom is indeed God, then Doctor Strange is the man who could have been. Hickman explores the relationship between Doom and his most trusted advisor as almost an extension of their Roger Stern and Mike Mignola’s incredible graphic novel Triumph & Torment. These two men have great respect for one another despite their differences over the years, and that respect is palpable. Strange is the one person in this world that Doom does not have control over because he knows the score. They built this world together. They remember the way the world was. And yet, Doom cannot open up to strange the way he can with Sue Richards, and I suspect that’s because Doom can’t understand why someone would not want control over everything.

That said, Doom bears a heavy burden. He feels that he is the flaw in this great world he has built because he cannot make it any more perfect and he can’t fix his own face. In this moment, Hickman shows us the man behind the iron mask, both literally and figuratively. In revealing Doom’s agony over his own humanity, Hickman transforms the character from pompous villain to tragic antihero, one that falls in line with great Marvel characters throughout history including Infinity Gauntlet-era Thanos.

The rest of the plot reveals to us that things are not quite as under control as Doom would understand them to be. Strange makes it a point to remind him (and us) that Doom isn’t omniscient. There is rebellion bubbling up around Battleworld and the incursion of a few of our 616 heroes looks to be the variable that Doom couldn’t have planned for. It’s too early to tell how the heroes will save the multiverse but it’s very clear that they aren’t happy under Doom’s dominion.

Esad Ribic’s art is a joy to behold. But he runs into some inconsistencies. He has a little bit of trouble with some character renderings (Sue Richards, particularly at a crucial character moment for Doom) but his overall approach to the world is very strong. There’s a softness to his lines that, when coupled with Ive Svorcina’s colors, give the book an ethereal quality. It makes sense that this place was almost thought up out of thin air - it seems like a dream.

This approach doesn’t undermine Ribic’s storytelling prowess. In the aforementioned Doom/Sue Richards scene, Ribic is able to make Doom’s stoic, immortal, iron visage stand in stark contrast to the wounded imperfection we find beneath by using excellent shot selection and only showing Doom from certain angles. When we finally see Doom’s face, we realize how much of him is an illusion and how that affects his own understanding of himself. Ribic is clearly in sync with Hickman's vision for this story. While there is a marked improvement in rendering for the characters that are more central to the plot versus those that may be slightly less involved, it isn’t enough of a difference to take you out of the story.

Secret Wars has a lot of silly superhuman dressing for what is ultimately a story about humanity, morality and the burden of power. It’s right in line with the kinds of stories that Marvel has been putting out for over 50 years. But we’re still in the early goings of this event and many other events have started similarly strong only to completely lose their way when trying to stick a landing. We already know that this event will have a lasting effect on the Marvel Universe as we know it but it’s up to Hickman and Ribic to make that mean something more than a bunch of “all-new, all-different” #1 issues and some other cosmetic changes. They aren’t being tasked with telling us anything new about ourselves or Marvel Comics in general. Secret Wars will be a win if it reminds us why all these imaginary stories are important to us in the first place.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #41
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

This is how you do the Justice League.

Clocking in at more than 40 pages, DC Comics comes back swinging after its hibernation during Convergence, as Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok make Justice League #41 the kind of epic team-up that readers have been clamoring for since Johns took over the title.

Cutting back and forth between the League and the growing threat of Darkseid, the biggest strength of Justice League has to be the confidence Geoff Johns brings to his characterization. Scott Free, for example, gets as striking an introduction as any character in the New 52 has, as he uses every ounce of his super-escape artistry to Darkseid's lair. Even a simple crime scene mystery featuring the Leaguers is a site to illuminate how the world's finest superhero team plays off one another.

Batman and the Flash, for example, play off each other as trained forensic scientists - Cyborg and Shazam, meanwhile, provide an interesting counterpoint as the League's youngest members. There's a one-page sequence featuring the five founding Leaguers that's as beautiful as it is simple, showing that no matter what their differences, they have a common curiosity that binds them together. And this brightness provides a solid contrast to Darkseid, who comes off as not just dark, but truly alien in his coldness, as he grinds Mister Miracle's hopes into dust.

What's also great about this issue is that while there are slower beats to establish character, Johns also has some fun action sequences. Scott Free brings a strong start to this book, as he dives through an Apokalyptian sewer and dodges the attacks of the Darkseid's Furies. The League themselves also don't have much time to breathe, as Johns outdoes himself with an epic fight sequence featuring Grail, the daughter of Darkseid. From her chilling introduction - literally using the Flash as a transportation portal - to her brutal takedowns of Batman, Green Lantern and Shazam, this is easily the best we've seen the League since the New 52 began. Just bravo all around.

Artist Jason Fabok continues to be the gift that keeps on giving for this series. Teamed up with colorist Brad Anderson, this duo has continued to up their game, particularly where the action sequences are concerned. (There's a beat where Mister Miracle flips over a car that's just gorgeous to look at, and the one-pager featuring the young Leaguers is pure poetry.) In many ways, Fabok reminds me a bit of his predecessor on the series, Ivan Reis, but with a more lush style of inking that lends itself so well to iconic, on-model takes of DC's best and brightest characters.

If there's anything that slightly stutters in this issue, it's just a handful of the subplots. Arch-rivals Superman and Lex Luthor, for example, get some great barbs at each other's expense, but the cliffhanger at the end of the issue feels a little overdone - you know that Lex Luthor would never be taken out in such pedestrian fashion, so it's hard to buy any of the tension. Additionally, Kanto and Lashina's casual malevolence feels just a little over the top - much of this may also just have to do with their kooky designs not playing as well with the dark subject matter, but when you have to play second fiddle to Darkseid and Grail, well, it's easy to get outclassed as a supervillain.

Minor speed bumps aside, however, Justice League has been on an upswing since "The Amazo Virus" arc, and "The Darkseid War" looks to continue this series' dominance. With tons of extra pages to let Johns and Fabok work their magic, this absolutely raises the bar for much of the rest of the DC catalog. If you've been a lapsed reader, now is the time to get back on board.

Credit: DC Comics

Midnighter #1
Written by Steve Orlando
Art by ACO, Hugo Petrus and Romulo Fajardo, Jr.
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Move over, Bunker and Alan Scott - DC Comics has thrown the spotlight on another gay male superhero, and he will absolutely kick your ass. Steve Orlando’s Midnighter is equal parts deadly, aggressive, caring (in his own way) and unapologetically awesome. The art team consisting of ACO, Hugo Petrus, and Romulo Fajardo, Jr. did an absolutely phenomenal job bringing this series to life, giving it what amounts to a TV makeover where everything looks like it’s happening right in front of you.

For anyone not familiar with Midnighter as a character or what he’s been up to recently, Orlando makes it extremely easy to jump right in and get on board. The first time we actually see Midnighter, he’s on a date - with said date scrolling through his online dating profile - before alien commandos storm into the restaurant. These first few pages perfectly sum up the gist of Midnighter’s character: his personality, his abilities, and what he values are all laid out in an action-packed and explosive sequence that’ll immediately make you get behind him as a character and want to know more.

It’s this fight scene — and the one preceding it — where the art team really lays down their style. ACO is very similar to Andrea Sorrentino and Marcelo Maiolo from Jeff Lemire’s Green Arrow run in the best way. They make it their own and add more of a cinematic quality to it to make it flow really well. Whenever Midnighter kills an opponent, they’ll show an X-ray in the panel of the action to show just how much damage Midnighter’s doing. This breaks up the longer fight scenes to make them more palatable and exciting, without losing the momentum going forward.

One of Orlando’s biggest strengths in writing Midnighter throughout the issue is showing how multi-faceted this character is. On the one hand, yes, he’s mildly psychotic and extremely aggressive when fighting, but Orlando shows how much Midnighter has the potential to care. Between showing affection and concern for Jason, his most recent love interest, to talking about his ex-partner Apollo in the most heartbreaking way possible, it’s clear that Midnighter’s going through a lot. Orlando plays it coy with the details here, but ultimately we don’t need to know exactly what happened with Apollo, because the most important aspect — that fact that he’s not in Midnighter’s life right now — is extremely present and obvious. It was also great to see Midnighter hooking up with someone other than a white guy — while it may have some readers rolling their eyes at this mention, diversity when done right should be celebrated. Orlando and the team absolutely nail it so far none of the leads in this book are your usual cookie-cutter comic book characters.

The only thing that stops this comic from being a straight-up 10 out of 10 is a somewhat confusing opening scene. The Gardener, the one who made Midnighter who he is today, comes under attack. We’re thrust into the middle of the action without knowing what’s going on, what’s at stake, or who the players in the scene are. By the end of the issue, everything’s revealed and we’re brought up to speed as Midnighter resolves himself to pursue the man who attacked the Gardener. It was when we were too in the dark of what was going on that it was hard to engage with the narrative, but once Orlando switched to the date scene, the rest of the issue was seamless.

Midnighter is a comic for everyone - or at least, everyone who can stomach the extreme violence the titular character doles out. Regardless of where you stand on his personal life, Orlando gives you a story that anyone can feel invested in: he shows us glimpses of who Midnighter is and what motivates him and then gives the character a clear objective to attain in the first arc. Between the writing and the incredible artwork, this is a series you won’t want to miss.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Years of Future Past #1
Written by Marguerite Bennett
Art by Mike Norton and Fco Plascencia
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It seems that in no matter what reality they find themselves, mutantkind will always have a rough go of it. Marguerite Bennett’s Years of Future Past #1 may be the roughest future for mutants to date. Thanks to the patchwork of Battleworld, Christina, the daughter of Kitty Pryde, has been raised in a world in which mutants have been trapped in internment camps, or “custody centers,” for all of their lives and forced to live like fourth-rate citizens, emblazoned with letters delineating whether they are human, mutant, or something in-between. Years of Future Past #1 may be the darkest Secret Wars tie-in to date, but the eternal spark of hope that burns within the X-Men books is still alive and well within these pages even amid the squalor of yet another mutant dystopia.

Years of Future Past #1 begins with a lengthy monologue from Chrissie Pryde as she scours the ruined landscape of New York for supplies. Marguerite Bennett acquits herself beautifully to delivering Christina’s dialogue, as well as the rest of the team, which includes Christina’s mother Kitty, her father Colossus, and extended family Magneto and Rachel Grey. After handling the large cast of A-Force, Bennett shows that she can handle the unwieldy casts of characters that X books tend to employ without losing their unique voices or perspectives. Take for instance Wolverine and his son Cameron. Bennett easily slots Wolverine into his recurring role of smarmy ronin, yet his son Cameron is given another, more interesting role; that of willing participant in this harsh reality. Cameron, like his father once, is willing to make the hard calls and take a life when he deems it appropriate. Years of Future Past presents a harsh world and Marguerite Bennett isn’t afraid to allow her characters to push back against it just as harshly.

While Bennett’s character work is top-notch, the plot of Years of Future Past #1 also proves a lot juicier than your standard X-pocalypse book. After finding the supplies needed to burn off their inhibitor collars, our erstwhile team of mutants embark on a mission to expose President Kelly’s atrocities against mutants and to rally more mutants to their cause all while adhering to their original mission of protecting a world that hates and fears them. President Kelly inversely is facing an election as well as a repeal vote of his monstrous laws against mutants, and so he sends two of his aides into the field with orders to remind people why they should hate mutants. Bennett sets a great many wheels into motion with this debut issue, but Years of Future Past never reads as rushed or jumbled. Bennett gradually introduces us into this new X-Men dystopia, layering each facet of the story every few pages and also keeping Chrissie Pryde right in the thick of it as our lead. Years of Future Past #1 may introduce readers to a world that is coming apart at the seams, but thankfully, it stands as a rock solid debut from a rock solid writer.

Speaking of rock-solid, the artwork of Mike Norton and the colors Fco Plascencia prove to be the very definition of the word. Norton’s classic, Paolo Riveria-like renderings give Years of Future Past #1 a grimy vintage look that is only bolstered by the use of the X-Men’s classic costumes. Norton doesn’t just stop at great character work however. Norton also completely throws himself into the crumbling landscape that surrounds those characters, presenting this new section of Battleworld as a darkened, regressing cityscape complete with horse-drawn cars and buses. I said above that Years of Future Past #1 was the darkest of all the Secret Wars tie-ins and much of that is due to Mike Norton’s grayscale panel work. Aiding in that darkness is colorist Fco Plascencia who wields colors like a weapon throughout this debut. Much of issue is rendered in drab greys, sickly greens, and florescent blues, yet when the characters get in their costumes or when the Sentinels come stalking and the battle is joined, Plascencia covers the page with restrained brightness as to not betray the set visual look of this debut. Norton and Plascencia work effortlessly together to provide Years of Future Past #1 with an evocative and retro look that slots in perfectly with Marguerite Bennett’s tale of mutant dystopia.

Strife and conflict are commonplace for the X-Men, however, in the patchwork of Battleworld, the children of the atom may be facing their most harrowing reality to date. Years of Future Past #1 is a dark, yet optimistically retro entry into the Secret Wars canon thanks in large to Marguerite Bennett refusing to allow the characters to just roll over and accept their fate. Much of the X-Men’s mindset revolves around the idea that the world can always be better and that is the truth that lies at the center of this debut. The X-Men aren’t fighting just to fight; they are fighting for a better tomorrow no matter what. Years of Future Past #1 introduces some monumental odds for mutantkind to triumph over and it is sure to get worse before it get better. However, there is always a better world out there - they just have to fight for it.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman Beyond #1
Written by Dan Jurgens
Art by Bernard Chang and Marcelo Maiolo
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

The clean and bright future of the Batman Beyond you're familiar has been cut short by Futures End. Terry McGinnis is dead, but Batman Beyond lives on through a familiar face - that of one-time Red Robin Tim Drake. Dan Jurgens and Bernard Chang flash-forward 35 years to show us the definitive future of the DC Universe in Batman Beyond #1. Attention-grabbing coloring atop solid artwork makes Batman Beyond #1 an eye-catching comic book, but it isn't without its fair share of narrative faults.

Thanks to time travelling shenanigans, Tim Drake is stuck in the future. After having dispatched of the Justice League and turned them to its cause, Brother Eye rules Neo-Gotham with an iron fist. Posing as original Batman Beyond Terry McGinnis' brother, Tim Drake has donned the mantle of Batman and is desperately trying to make sense of this grim new world.

Dan Jurgen's script centers around Tim's disorientation with his new surroundings. Neo-Gotham is the classically dystopian world of destroyed landmarks and roving gangs of maniacs, which doesn't really gel with Tim Drake's usually pragmatic mind. Jurgens' script is dense, to say the least. Refreshingly, Jurgens moves Tim from point to point at breakneck speed. There's a solid chunk of story for your money here, which maintains a solid balance between action and character-building, but that doesn't forgive the overtly-complicated premise.

Here's the problem. Batman Beyond #1 is a terrible jumping-on point for new readers. If you haven't read up on Futures End, you'll be hopelessly lost here. Jurgens tries his best to fill new readers in, but that only results in a ton of clumsy exposition, especially in those first few pages. Although it evens out by the issue's midway point, there's an awful lot of folks who are gonna be alienated right off the bat here, as we delve into the further adventures of Tim Drake-from-five-years-into-the-future-35-years-into-the-future. It's an unadvertised tie-in to a poorly received year-long storyline, and this kind of thing represents modern superhero storytelling at its worst.

On a more positive note, Bernard Chang's style fits the iconic Batman Beyond costume to a tee. By using the white triangular eyes of the Beyond costume as a conduit into Tim's mood, Chang's Beyond cuts an intimidating but emotional figure. Chang's characters are distinctive, showing an impressive amount of emotional range, and his action sequences are imaginative and well staged. His panel layouts vary from a vertical reading order to the more conventional horizontal form, meaning that Batman Beyond #1 is never tedious to look at.

Colorist Marcelo Maiolo has done a great job here, underlining the hazardous reality of Neo-Gotham with reds, oranges and yellows. There's a particular panel on page 14 that really pops; Maiolo daubs Tim in a solid red whilst highlighting the sky in a block of orange, leaving Tim's eyeholes and teeth sheer white. It's the kind of evocative panel that seems worth blowing up, printing on a canvas and framing on a wall. In another panel, Mailo drains a fight sequence between Batman and the Jokerz of all color except white, black, orange and crimson, which draws attention to Chang's solid silhoeuttes and sense of motion.

Batman Beyond #1 is a poisoned chalice of a comic book. The artwork and coloring on display here are absolutely top-notch, and of course, it's great to see one of the better costume designs in the world of modern superheroics get a much-needed airing, even if the guy under the cowl isn't to everyone's liking. Dan Jurgen's script ultimately suffers from its marriage to the convoluted Futures End, but there's a lot of potential here for the series to find its own feet as Tim Drake continues to battle the omnipresent Brother Eye.

Credit: DC Comics

Bat-Mite #1
Written by Dan Jurgens
Art by Corin Howell, Andres Ponce and Mike Atiyeh
Lettering by Trom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The new era of DC kicks off this week, and the ethos appears to be “launching a bold new direction...while still honoring our rich legacy of storytelling.” So with the end of Convergence allowing for the writers to go absolutely anywhere, it’s amazingly heartwarming to see that they’ve gone straight to the strangest era of Batman in the late 1950s. Bat-Mite, a character introduced in 1959, was a mischievous imp similar to Superman’s foe Mister Mxyzptlk. Virtually unseen in modern DC, save for a few appearances in dream sequences and Grant Morrison’s head-trip "Batman R.I.P.," he has remained in his native fifth dimension of imagination. Until now.

In this debut issue of a new limited series, Bat-Mite has committed some heinous crime in his home dimension and has been exiled to the DC Universe. After crashing the Batmobile and meeting his fairly unsurprised idol Batman, the diminutive would-be hero is captured by a nefarious nurse and held prisoner by Doctor Trauma. It’s very old-school Scooby Doo-type cartoonery, and bounces around with the energy of a Saturday morning cartoon to boot.

Along with the new run of Bizarro, another character created in the same Silver Age madness that begat the fifth dimensional imp, this series of Bat-Mite is firmly aimed at being an all-ages title. For the most part it succeeds, although some occasionally dark themes and casual violence means that “all-ages” in this case would probably preclude the youngest of children. Dan Jurgens wastes no more than a handful of pages setting up Bat-Mite’s “origin” before literally throwing him into the driver’s seat and crashing headlong into Batman. Jurgen’s rarely lets up on the dialogue - this Bat-Mite can talk, even during panels where he’s being knocked out - and the constant barrage of dialogue may distract some readers. (Then again, heavy amounts of text have been par for the course on the flagship Batman book since 2011).

The art is simple, but effective. Relative newcomer Corin Howell (Ben 10, Hello Kitty and Friends) depicts Bat-Mite in a cherubic cartoony style where you can practically see the rubber banding of the movement. Other characters range from the semi-realistic (the introduction of Batman and a surprise cameo) to an animated style, sometimes with the same character and on the same page. It’s unclear as to whether it was Howell’s intentions for the characters to go frequently off-model, the aforementioned nurse having almost three different styles depending on the page, or if that is in keeping with the cartoon style.

It’s terrific to see DC taking aim at younger readers with their new line-up, and there is a definite charm to Bat-Mite. Some of the references (“Trickle down economics at work!”) will undoubtedly go sailing right over the heads of the younger readers, but there’s enough one-liners to keep at least the smiles coming. It’s a fine start for a limited series, although as yet shows no reason to be an ongoing. The real test will be to see how this performs with the younger audiences.

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