DC Comics July 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics

Happy Monday, 'Rama readers! Ready for your post-holiday column? Best Shots has you covered, with a hot six-pack of reviews! So let's kick off today's column with Rollicking Richard Gray, as he takes a look at the latest issue of Princess Leia...

Credit: Marvel Comics

Princess Leia #5
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

One of the most devastating and powerful moments in the original Star Wars film was the destruction of the Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan, simply a test for an “effective demonstration” of the Death Star’s capabilities. Yet apart from the millions of voices that “suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced,” there appeared to be few canonical consequences to the action once everyone (except Chewbacca) had received their medals on Yavin. This is what Mark Waid, Terry and Rachel Dodson’s Princess Leia has been about, in helping this character reach some kind of emotional closure between adventures.

Princess Leia #5 is a million miles from where the character started in the first issue of this mini-series, as a character who was portrayed as emotionally cold to those around her. However, over the course of the series, Waid has taken the feisty princess and, along with pilot Evaan and the trusty R2-D2, sent her on a voyage of self-discovery. Indeed, it wasn’t until this series that we realize how little of that was done in the original trilogy, Leia’s major plot points saw her switching between warrior princess and Han’s love interest/Luke’s sister when the story required it. That’s not to say she was never a strong character, as that was demonstrable in the films, but her inner voice was not explored in a major title such as this (the Star Wars Legends titles notwithstanding, of course) until now.

The danger with these books set in-between existing properties is that they would somehow betray or contradict the existing canon. It’s a fine like Jason Aaron and Kieron Gillen have skirted in their respective books, and the awkward start this series had was perhaps indicative of the light touch that was necessary for a title that may not have had as broad an appeal as the main title and its villainous counterpart. Both the character and the book have found their respective feet by this final chapter, featuring a character who was quite willing to take her ships into battle to save the last of her people. A rousing final speech that saves the day might be a familiar trope, but it is no less satisfying and impactful because of it. In fact, it might just be the moment the character transitions from "princess" to "rebel leader."

Leia couldn’t be in better hands that the Dodsons, who not only portray a universe accurate version of the characters and their surroundings, but find a corresponding strength in the beauty and vice versa. They get to cut loose a little on the planet Espirion, which has a more elegant design that’s akin to the prequel films that the industrialized designs of the Empire. There are some full-on space battles in this issue as well, which the fullest the Dodson’s panels ever get, electing for minimalist backgrounds in most instances. Color artist Jordie Bellaire builds a very deliberate style throughout, from the bright pastels on Espirion, the backlit grunge of space and the retro oranges and browns of the space explosions. It’s a dynamic color set that pushes the Dodson’s art even further.

If there is one thing that has made the current crop of Star Wars comics stand out from the crowd, it’s the top shelf creators that Marvel has attached to the series. Although Princess Leia was far too short-lived, the slot is ready to be taken alongside the two main titles by stablemate Lando, for the heavy-hitter team of Charles Soule and Alex Maleev. Yet what Princess Leia has proved to Marvel and Disney is that this character, and other strong female characters in the Star Wars universe, are not only compelling and interesting outside of the characters they are normally associated with, but there is infinite scope for expanding the range of stories to be told in a galaxy far, far away.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman Beyond #2
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: 7 out of 10

Tim Drake joins the human resistance in Batman Beyond #2, a comic book that owes more to The Terminator's vision of the future than the late nineties animated series that shares this title's namesake. Although Bernard Chang's artwork excels at depicting a grimy dystopia and Dan Jurgens succeeds at making his world a little more compelling, his plot-heavy script still struggles to grab the reader's full attention.

Batman Beyond #2 is a marked improvement on its shaky start. Dan Jurgens spends this issue establishing the nature of his fatalistic dystopia, and with the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimeyness behind Tim's presence in this new world thankfully explained, we can now ignore it in favor of the Terminator-style uprising against the evil robots of Brother Eye. Jurgens' world under threat is much more palatable now that he's fleshed out it with the average citizen, and Barbara Gordon works well as a hardened soldier of eternal war. Chang has subtly weathered Barbara's features, giving her the appearance of someone running on too little sleep and too few calories. Elsewhere, Chang and Jurgens understand the power of the unnatural smile in the context of Batman, and use this threat of the uncanny to great effect.

Jurgens has put together a meaty script here, stressing plot over characterisation. It's often a little blunt and inelegant, bogged down by the weight of its own backstory. “What's happened is that the world has become a rather awful place, Tim.” says Barbara in both the understatement and worst line of the week. Letterer Dave Sharpe had his work cut out for him here. His word balloons come in from all angles, filling every quiet nook and cranny with words. He makes the best of a difficult job, but a little more restraint on Jurgens part would have let the issue breathe a little more, visually.

Brother Eye makes for a convincing big bad as the unfeeling A.I. with a constant laser-sharp focus on the remnants of the human race. Towards the end of the issue, the return of Inque will be pleasing to any long-time DCAU'er. She's been distilled down to her most basic form here, but Chang has great fun depicting her visually exciting power-set. She slides, stretches and morphs across the page, injecting pure energy into every panel she appears in.

Chang mixes things up with unorthodox panel layouts that artfully and effectively arrange Jurgens' busy script. Chang's especially fond of slashing panels vertically and horizontally, offering up shard-like panels that mirrors the sharpness of Inque.

Atop the pencils, Marcelo Maiolo continues his evocative approach to coloring. For panels of violent impact, he drains all color except blood red and empty white space, which adds a classy and striking tone to the action, not to mention pulling focus on to Bernard Chang's expressive artwork.

Dan Jurgens and Bernard Chang are slowly beginning to reveal the potential behind this incarnation of Batman Beyond. Forgetting the shaky time travelling premise, there's a solid foundation here for future adventure. Jurgens still stresses plot above all, which makes Batman Beyond #2 a slow and ungainly read, although Chang's stylish artwork makes action sequences pop with activity. It's an improvement, but we're still not in “must-read” territory yet.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Future Imperfect #2
Written by Peter David
Art by Greg Land, Jay Leisten and Nolan Woodard
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Sometimes, all a reader wants out of a superhero comic book is two titans in a free-for-all. In the second issue of Future Imperfect, that is exactly what writer Peter David and artist Greg Land aim to deliver. Unfortunately, when dealing with a brawl of this magnitude, a comic runs the risk of letting the story get lost in the fray, and Future Imperfect #2 isn’t quite fleet-footed enough to avoid this pitfall.

For this action-packed installment, the issue begins in a fairly quiet flashback as Major Thaddeus Ross and his partner Talbot pilot their spaceship into a storm of cosmic rays. This origin should be instantly familiar to most comic book readers, and it recounts the origin of this domain’s Thing. The issue then cuts back to the present where the Thing fights off the villainous Maestro in order to give Ruby and her allies a chance to escape. Save for the cliffhanger reveals towards the end of the comic book, the fight between Thing and Maestro takes up the rest of the issue.

With a physical conflict of this magnitude, it depends on the artist to maintain the reader’s interest, and for their parts, the trio of Greg Land, inker Jay Leisten, and colorist Nolan Woodard hold up their end of the bargain. Land has his fair share of critics, but his lines here are clean, and the detail given to the massive forms of the combatants makes them seem truly monstrous. Jay Leisten deserves a lot of credit here as well; the deep shadows that form between the muscles of Maestro give a true sense of weight to Land’s figure work. Woodard’s colors do their part, not only in creating punctuated panels to emphasize impact, but in the way that the two combatants look. The Thing’s hue is reminiscent of a school-brick, making him seem familiar, while the ghoulish shade used for Maestro helps to show his depravity. One thing that stood out in the art was the use of motion blur, and these doubled lines help not only to draw the focus of the reader to the point of impact but they also create a sense of kinetic frenzy that keeps up the pace.

Unfortunately, while the action here is plenty interesting, there isn’t much in the way of storytelling. The real hook to the fight is an assumption that the Thing is a composite of two classic Hulk opponents: General Ross with Ben Grimm’s body. This familiarity is what gives the fight any real stakes, and for a new reader that doesn’t have that knowledge, a lot of this issue is going to fall flat. Peter David tries to counter this, giving Ruby narrative captions that emphasize the immediate importance of the melee, but the fact is that readers don’t know her all that well either.

When reading this issue, I couldn’t help but wonder if the reason I was invested in this story wasn’t simply that I was familiar with these particular incarnations of the characters. The best of the Secret Wars tie-ins have taken the story from square one, providing a new spin on an older premise so that new readers could join in, while older readers would have an extra understanding of the proceedings. But in Future Imperfect #2, that accessibility isn’t entirely there. That isn’t to say that David’s script doesn’t have anything to offer, though. Maestro gets some great villainous bits to spout, and the reveals toward the end hint at a more complex plot ahead. But at this point, I can’t help but wonder if the big fight came too early in the story.

Ultimately, Future Imperfect #2 an entertaining book if a reader is looking for a superhero brawl. While the stakes won’t hold up for readers new to comics, there’s still some fun to be had. There’s a lot of potential here if the series can better balance its plotting with its action set pieces. If it can’t, it will remain a good-not-great, entertaining-not-exhilarating type of affair.

Credit: Image Comics

Airboy #2
Written by James Robinson
Art by Greg Hinkle
Lettering by Greg Hinkle
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Fans and critics of any artistic medium always have some interest in the inner workings of their favorite creators. Do they believe the same tired cliches they spout at conventions? Are they aware of their standing? Do they recognize when their output is lacking? When it comes to Starman alum James Robinson in his semi-autobiographical Airboy, the answer is refreshingly in the positive. But the problem with Airboy is that it doesn’t recognize that it in and of itself is a continuation of Robinson’s lackluster output. It’s a sad amalgam of Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson that leans hard on the depressed artist cliches but never ends up making us feel anything for its characters.

Robinson makes it pretty clear from the first two issues of this miniseries that he wants to portray himself at this point in his life as the worst sort of person imaginable. He’s a molotov cocktail of drugs, alcohol, depression and regret. He doesn’t derive joy from anything anymore, even though he’s aware that his life probably isn’t really all that bad. At its best, Airboy is confessional and candid about Robinson’s life and career. He talks about his experience at DC briefly but honestly, and for a moment, there’s a feeling that the real James Robinson has leaked through.

But that comes in stark contrast to how he wants to present himself, which is a debaucherous, drug-addled jerk, which inevitably makes the honesty feel hollow. From the very first page, where Robinson runs down the street with his penis on full display, the jokes are offensive for offensiveness’ sake and they only serve to prop up a tired narrative. This extends to later in the book, as well, with Robinson’s less-than-sensitive portrayal of the trans community. Much has been written about why Robinson’s usage of an entire community as the butt of a joke is wrong - and Robinson has given an apology - but at the end of the day, using people as props is also just bad writing, plain and simple. Combined with sophomoric humor, the whole thing just reeks of a lack of forethought.

Easily the best part of the book is Greg Hinkle’s art. His characters are very expressive, and that’s what makes some of the script work a little bit better. I think that Hinkle has excellent shot selection and his setting design is top-notch as well. There’s a lot of energy to his work that helps Robinson’s script from getting stale too quickly. And despite all the energy and detail, Hinkle is able to delivered the intimacy of Robinson’s confession with aplomb. That said, I don’t love his decision to color everything with a specific wash of color and have only Airboy stand out - I understand it has a function of the protagonists’ altered states, but considering the amount of detail packed into some of pages and panels, I think it does a disservice to the art as a whole.

Airboy will probably get a push from the controversy that surrounded this issue, and maybe the last two issues will prove that push to be deserved. Hinkle’s art definitely deserves attention, but Robinson has yet to find his footing. The “depressed artist” trope is a well-worn one, and I kept waiting for the script to really say something about, well, anything at all. We do get an interesting bit of self-evaluation from Robinson, but it isn’t the tentpole moment that the comic needs. Some readers might be enthralled with the bit of “inside baseball” that the comic provides, but that’s a terribly small niche to be aiming for. I believe that Robinson has something to say - some of his previous work has had a very strong voice - I don’t think this is an effective vehicle for him to say it.

Credit: DC Comics

Midnighter #2
Written by Steve Orlando
Art by Alec Morgan, Romulo Fajardo, Jr. and Allen Passalaqua
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by Vanessa Gabriel
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

When the God Garden references corporate personhood on the opening page, you know the political mojo of Midnighter #2 is strong. This comic has something to say, and it is viciously direct.

The story starts quick, as a woman’s husband is dead because of corporate greed and negligence - livid with rage, she asks, “Is there a factor in your projections for how we live?” Of course, this woman has plenty of force to back up her words, after she acquires a magical necklace that empowers her to wreck shop and exact revenge on the gentlemen of the board that indirectly killed her husband. Cue the Midnighter, who steps in to intervene on what is clearly a emotional explosion of revenge.

Throughout this book, writer Steve Orlando’s unabashed characterization rings loud and clear, as does Midnighter’s “pure” vigilantism. It is a line that Midnighter tap-dances on, as he possesses both a fierce respect for the innocent and a deranged desire for extreme violence. For all the opinionated allusions, it is Midnighter’s mojo that is the driving force and appeal of this book. The dense masculinity and thematic justice is visceral, you can smell the blood and sweat emanating from the pages.

This is most evident in a later scene in the book, as Midnighter canoodles with his latest love interest in a Moscow hole-in-the-wall. While the action-packed fight sequences in the issue explore the anti-hero Midnighter, it's this scene, where he's faced with the less-than-tolerant attitudes of the Russian locals, that the Midnighter’s personal conviction takes focus. Midnighter’s unwavering sense of justice and personal authenticity is thoroughly gratifying because wouldn’t we all like to be so brave? And then just when you think you’ve had your fill of fine-tuned characterization, his fearlessness is coupled with vulnerability as we are flashed back to the moment he parted ways with Apollo. It’s sweet, sad and pitch-perfect for this study in contrasts.

Totally off-the-cuff yet also precisely plotted, Orlando writes Midnighter with the kind of brashness that pushes the reader to their edge. It’s a refreshing and unique voice among the current DC line-up while still fitting right in. Midnighter feels like Batman without the Zur-En-Arrh failsafe, and with a sense of humor. And it is in these moments of humor that makes room for the biting liberal commentary and emotional honesty because ultimately, this comic, this character doesn’t take himself too seriously which translates into sharp entertainment.

#2's art displays the gruff, hard-edged action and emotion of Midnighter with impressive perspectives as Midnighter interrupts Marina’s revenge by scaling the building from the roof and crashing into the board room, and the focus on her face as it goes from shock, fear, realization and then to satisfaction because Midnighter is on her side. There is violent movement that is emotionally engaging - even if it does lack some of the more fluid detail of the first issue’s panel layout. What’s most remarkable are the powerful close-ups and precisely contrasted color as Midnighter bloodily smashes his ears with his fists or flashes that wicked grin before a fight, his rebel spirit is fully imbued in the panels.

That being said, the jagged, stylized lines are such a stark contrast to the distinct, smooth lines of #1 that I was a bit confused while Midnighter was on his Moscow date. It is not immediately evident who he is with. First thought is that it would be Jason, the one he bagged (and tagged) in the first issue, but Midnighter’s been “friend-zoned” for coming on too strong. The dialogue does call the character he’s with by name, and points to a quick moment in the first issue. Yet, it took a minute for me to realize this was a different guy and not an art snafu. It disrupts the narrative with a moment of, “Wait, who is that again?” Something that likely could have been remedied with a bit more exposition in the dialogue.

Still, Midnighter #2 digs deeper into Midnighter’s impetuous heart. It is broken but honest. It is this smash-mouth honesty that makes the Midnighter fascinating. With a repeated middle-finger to soulless capitalists and caveman homophobes, the character and commentary makes no apologies and offers no filter. I like it.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Darth Vader #7
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Salvador Larroca and Edgar Delgado
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“He’s more machine than man now.” Those were Ben Kenobi’s words about Darth Vader from A New Hope, but this month’s installment of Kieron Gillen’s take on the Sith Lord shows us the best and worst of this dichotomy. As the start of the second arc, Darth Vader #7 is a introspective and deliberate look at the inner workings of Vader as he transitions from lost soul to fully formed Sith. Writer Kieron Gillen and artists Salavdor Larroca and Edgar Delgado have undertaken the Herculean task of making Darth Vader relevant again and seven issues in they have proven that they are more than up to the task.

Returning to his one-time home of Tatooine, Vader takes it upon himself to investigate Luke's point of origin and, in true Vader fashion, to vaporize it from existence. The scenes on Tatooine only take up a mere six pages of Darth Vader #7, but Gillen, ever aiming for maximum feels, mines real pathos from Vader’s investigation. It's in these pages that we see Vader getting to know his progeny, even from afar, and seeing how much potential he has. Gillen also makes the most of Doctor Aphra being dragged across the galaxy by Vader as she has more than a few scenes to steal in Darth Vader #7. On Tatooine, she flippantly remarks on the irony of the Empire’s current state by observing the obvious; If the Empire had simply spare Luke's adoptive parents, he would have never left his homeworld to begin with. “Revenge is a hell of a motivator,” she remarks, not really knowing just how true her comments ring.

After Vader's work is completed on Tatooine, we are flung far across the galaxy to the Outer Rim, where a sassy Rodian crime boss is punishing one of his lessers after his profits are affected by the recent Imperial crackdown. Gillen’s villains are some of the best in the business, and while the Rodian isn’t named at all, he still provides the issue’s biggest laugh with a display of just how displeased he is with his men’s excuses. Though, as quickly as he is introduced, he is dispatched by Vader and a well-placed Imperial tracker as Vader and a legion of Stormtroopers storm his keep, kill everyone inside, and confiscate the obscene amount of credits that the crime boss had been hoarding. Artists Larroca and Delgado make the most of this short and sweet action sequence, filling the panels with laser blasted chaos and warm, singed colors. While the art team does an adequate job of handling the emotion on Tatooine, it's the action and trooper filled pages on the Outer Rim that charge Darth Vader #7 with the energy needed to carry it toward its crime filled cliffhanger.

Darth Vader #7 gives us both sides of the titular Sith lord, with the man and the machine and both proving very compelling. After years of the image of Vader being used to sell T-shirts and posters, Darth Vader has finally stripped all that away and presented Vader once again as a character and not as a marketing tool. Kieron Gillen has cut to the mechanized heart of Vader and presented him in a way that is equally terrifying and gripping, all while surrounding him with fun side characters with motivations all their own. While the main Star Wars title aims for swashbuckling action, Darth Vader continues to be a twist filled character study that has no problem showing its leads as the viciously pragmatic people that they actually are.

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