"Jem & The Holograms #5" cover by Sophie Campbell
Credit: Sophie Campbell (IDW Publishing)
Credit: DC Comics

Batgirl Annual #3
Written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher
Art by Bengal, David LaFuente, Ming Doyle, Mingjue Helen Chan, Gabe Eltaeb and Ivan Plascencia
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

While this might be the third annual since the the relaunch of Batgirl back in 2011, it is the first under the guidance of Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher’s hipster re-envisioning. For the most part, Barbara Gordon has been kept separate from the rest of the DCU during this period, giving her a chance to stand on her own two yellow-booted feet before the inevitable crossovers begin. This annual not only gives her a chance to encounter one of co-writer Fletcher’s other creations in Gotham Academy, but also bring her face-to-face (kind of) with her former flame and erstwhile Bat-family member Dick Grayson.

Stewart and Fletcher take a novel, and completely refreshing, approach to this annual by stretching out a single story across multiple sub-plots, each of which is given its own unique artistic style. Picking up an amnesiac United Nations official in Burnside, so begins a mini-saga that takes Batgirl across Gotham, encountering Grayson, Spoiler, Batwoman, along with Olive and Maps from Gotham Academy. It’s a perfect set-up for an annual, as the story requires little knowledge of any of these characters going in, but potentially gives new readers plenty of opportunities to branch out and explore new corners of Gotham.

The initial story, which cleverly tries to keep Babs and Dick apart for as long as possible, is an insanely fun romp that borders on Mission: Impossible territory as the duo break into a facility from different angles. The near-misses are frustratingly wonderful, fully aware that there isn’t a fan on the planet who wouldn’t want to see these two meet again. A tantalizingly close encounter as they approach the same corner is not only expertly timed, but beautifully laid out as well. The ultimate resolution may not be what those same fans were hoping for, but it’s a kinetic ride while it lasts. Less successful is the immediate follow-up with Spoiler, which is a mostly forgettable tale of hero worship, but it does sync up with a Wicker Man-inspired encounter with Batwoman, working on the same case. All three almost seem like a prelude to the Fletcher-verse creation in the final pages, which by itself is a charming meeting of worlds with fully fleshed-out characters, albeit one that is a little clumsily tacked on.

From the moment Babs takes off running at the end of the first part, each section has a different artist on it, and it’s a credit to all of them that the segments seamlessly segue into one another. Bengal’s art doesn’t try to ape Babs Tarr’s monthly work so much as pay tribute to it, although David LaFuente’s traditionally Marvel-focused work with the Spoiler section appears to actively approximate it. Both blend together stylishly, creating an exciting speed line-filled set of pages that barely pause for breath. Bengal’s tight action paneling is mirrored in LaFuente’s more comedic art. Ming Doyle naturally gives the book a tonal shift with Batwoman, especially backed by Ivan Plascencia’s more muted colors, but it results in some ethereal shots of burning wicker men on plains that are silently jaw-dropping. Chen rounds things out with her own Gotham Academy characters, stepping Batgirl out of her rubber-banded cartoon world and into a more delicate piece of animation.

There are some stories that don’t flow into each other as readily as others, such as the far too convenient inclusion of the Gotham Academy kids for a bit of much-anticipated fan-service. Yet Batgirl Annual #3 is an innovative and original piece that showcases the best that the new DC talent have to offer. If you’re looking for a way to inexpensively dip your toes into both Batgirl and Fletcher’s other series, this is an excellent starter kit.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Star Wars #7
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Simone Bianchi and Justin Ponsor
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It's tough times in Tatooine for Ben Kenobi. Guest artist Simone Bianchi steps up to the plate of Jason Aaron's blockbuster Star Wars ongoing for a one-shot tale set during the legendary Jedi's self-imposed exile following the events of Revenge of the Sith. Aaron's mostly self-contained issue is a low-key and mournful tale that captures the harsh and hostile nature of a life wasted in seclusion, even if its brooding tone sometimes slides into embarassing angst.

Billed as a chapter from Ben's freshly discovered memoirs, Aaron's conceit lends itself well to oodles of narration. Aaron has no problem getting to grips with the the Jedi Master's troubled twilight years. Bored of the monotony of desert life, Aaron's Kenobi longs to train the young Luke in the ways of the Jedi, whilst also being more than aware of the bitter pill that may turn out to be. Although Kenobi's plight is legitimate, Aaron sometimes lets it slip into melodrama. “You never trained me for this, Master Qui Gon. You never taught me to fade away,” says Kenobi as he collapses in the dry heat of Tatooine's twin suns. At least, that must have been the intention, even if Bianchi renders him somewhat akin to a toddler mid-tantrum.

Away from the navel-gazing, there's a solid tragedy here about a man who could halt the suffering of his fellow man in an instant, but instead stays his hand for fear of exposing his true nature. Kenobi's frustration oozes through every panel, making for a compelling portrait of the famous Jedi Knight during his darkest days. In comparison, Kenobi's foes are roughly sketched out as generic ne'er-do-wells, evil enough to be convincing as a threat but the furthest thing from the issue's real focus.

Bianchi's broad take on the infamous Obi Wan is certainly imposing, and his chunky style lends itself well to the battered tin can aesthetic of the Star Wars universe. Likewise, Bianchi's use of shadow is hugely effective. His facial studies are simple but nuanced, realistic without attempting actor likeness. Kenobi's night-time rescue is the highlight here, aided by Justin Ponsor's restrained but atmospheric color work.

Despite his knack for expression, Bianchi's panels sometimes lack texture; hair, skin and cloth aren't always quite as distinguished from each other as they should be. When combined with Ponsor's simple approach, Bianchi's artwork gives most of the issue an almost cell-shaded look that may not appeal to everyone. In contrast, and perhaps purposefully so, the page in which Kenobi realises that he's momentarily lost Luke features an extremely detailed close-up of the Jedi Master's ageing face, dimly lit by the interior lighting of his hovel. This sudden and brief elaboration of style is certainly impressive, but it almost spoils the rest of the artwork. It begs the question “Why isn't the whole issue drawn like that?!”

Star Wars #7 works as a decent little palette cleanser in between Luke, Han, Leia and co.'s adventures, but more importantly it provides color for an oft-mentioned but until-now unseen slice of Star Wars history. Aaron's script works on the whole, only falling into overt and unintentionally amusing melodrama for a few brief panels before expounding on the character of Obi Wan's lonely and solitude. Likewise, Simone Bianchi's artwork is solid but inconsistent, lacking all texture one moment and turning wildly detailed and intricate the next. Despite those few little niggles, Star Wars #7 still stands out above the rest.

Credit: DC Comics

Superman #42
Written by Gene Yang
Art by John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, Dean White, Wil Quintana and Tomeu Morey
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

For a book with “truth” and “justice” emblazoned on the cover, there’s sure not a lot of either in this issue. Gene Yang’s pacing drags for the second straight issue, and the art team is powerless to help him. The big reveal has been common knowledge for some time, and so what we’re left with is a awkward characterization of Clark Kent/Superman that doesn’t stand up next to his appearances in any of his other titles. It’s not for lack of trying, however - Yang desperately wants this to be a modern take on the outing of a superhero’s identity, but the mystery and intrigue don’t exist, leading to a book that falls completely flat.

The art is what surprised me most. John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson’s work has generally been pretty strong, and even here they have a few standout moments. But there are odd decisions made to facilitate part of the script, such as the way that Clark’s clothes rip after his fight with the solidified shadow zombies, that are laughable and obvious especially since we know exactly what’s going to happen. The script follows a similar path that the previous issue’s did - there’s a lot of exposition through dialogue between the characters but they aren’t really doing much of anything. Then there are a few action scenes (and another instance of the Solar Flare) to mix things up a little bit visually. There’s an odd sense of deja vu inherent in the work here. It’s not bad, it’s just boring and that made worse by inconsistent coloring from the army of colorists credited.

The script is the true offender, though. Yang doesn’t know how to write this depowered Superman. This Superman doesn’t stand for anything. He’s a cipher in a plot with no stakes fighting a villain with no charisma. It’s a zero sum game. Yang’s pacing is awful. This is a second straight issue that Clark spends worrying about his identity getting out, and this time it might be known by the whole world. He spends the whole issue trying to prevent it, but we already know it happens. Now maybe these issues would have been better received if they were released before the marketing announcement that set Superman’s new status quo months before we saw it in the comic books. But I struggle to find any merit in this story when other writers are doing Superman better right now.

There are a lot of books featuring Superman on the stands right now and you’d probably be better served to pick up any of them than waste time with this formulaic snoozefest. Superman is a great character that is very flexible in terms of interpretation and execution of concept but Yang doesn’t try anything we haven’t seen before. Even Romita’s work seems jilted by the switch from Geoff John’s scripts to these. Other writers have used this new status quo as an opportunity to explore what makes Superman the hero that he has been for years. Yang doesn’t get that chance, because his story exists before the status quo shift. He gets a raw deal because of the publishing schedule, but you’d have squint to find anything interesting here anyway.

Credit: Sophie Campbell (IDW Publishing)

Jem and the Holograms #5
Written by Kelly Thompson
Art by Sophie Campbell and M. Victoria Robado
Lettering by Shawn Lee
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Jem and the Holograms continues to impress, as Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell are able to honor this comic book's cartoon roots while still reinventing the band for a new generation. This issue picks up with Misfits groupie Clash engineering a deadly stage equipment “accident” during a Jem and the Holograms benefit show. After Aja injures herself to rescue Jem, we see the first glimmers of true tension between Jerrica and Rio, and Clash’s carefully crafted scheme unravels in an impressively illustrated food fight that puts fan-favorite sweethearts Kimber and Stormer at odds with each other over the business end of several creme pies.

Much of Jem's charm lies in the way Thompson and Campbell fully embrace the camp of their source material and ground it in reality without taking themselves too seriously. This episode is peak Jem cartoon drama, but Thompson skillfully toes the fine line between the seriousness of “felonies committed” and the outlandishness of what amounts to attempted murder committed in the name of winning a band battle. It’s a relief to know that Clash’s actions won’t go totally undiscovered, even if the consequence is a public, pizza-fueled brawl.

A montage during Aja's hospital visit is reminiscent of some of Jem's more saccharine musical numbers ("People Who Care," not that this scene isn’t very touching) but in Campbell's capable hands feels more like a simple slice of life. These glimpses into the lives of both the Holograms and the Misfits help round out what could in less capable hands have been an unmanageably large cast of characters, highlighting relationships might otherwise go overlooked for issues on end.

This month also showcases the thought Thompson and Campbell have put into revamping Jem’s character to create a more relatable, and easier to manage cast of characters. It’s a shame not to see more of the Starlight Girls or Starlight House, but focusing on the Holograms for this initial arc gives the book a sense of focus and direction the show lacked. It gives Kelly Thompson ample opportunity to flesh out characters like Rio, whose laughable love triangle with Jerrica and Jem thankfully appears to be a thing of the past in the comic update.

This reboot instead gives us a smarter, savvier Rio who sees Jem’s disappearance from Aja’s side after Aja saved her as disrespectful, the way any normal person would without knowing Jerrica and Jem were one and the same. Instead of the absurd comedy of errors of Jerrica getting mad at herself for cheating with her own boyfriend, we see Jerrica’s frustration with Rio’s poor opinion of Jem, and with her own struggle to articulate why he’s wrong about a seemingly aloof, uncaring diva without spilling her secret. Nobody pretends Rio is too dumb to ever find out, which even in the original children’s show was one element that pushed suspension of disbelief a little too far.

Thompson’s cohesive and compelling writing is strong on its own, but paired with Sophie Campbell’s artwork and Victoria Robado’s excellent colors, Jem is elevated from a silly revival for nostalgic adults to something even new readers can appreciate. A television adaptation would fit in perfectly on ABC Family (imagine a Misfits appearance in the last episodes of Pretty Little Liars) or Cartoon Network (to the delight of Steven Universe’s team, given their homage to the Jem character Danse earlier this year). The first arc of Jem is shaping up to end with a bang in next month’s issue, making this a perfect time for new readers to get on board.

Credit: DC Comics

Batgirl #42
Written by Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher
Art by Babs Tarr, Jake Wyatt, Michel Lacombe and Serge Lapointe
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

There's a new Batman in town, but that's not the worst of it for Barbara Gordon - this capeless crusader is also her dad! Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher, Babs Tarr and company finish off this two-parter of Batgirl, as Burnside's resident vigilante takes on the Superman villain Livewire. While there's a little bit of depth lacking considering the rich family drama that could be unfolding here, there's still plenty of charm to this creative team's approach.

Perhaps its not surprising that with an electrifying villain like Livewire, this issue of Batgirl is focused more on the action and pyrotechnics than issues of family dynamics. There's very little in the way of tension as far as Batgirl and Batman goes, and that may be the biggest missed opportunity here - Jim lets Barbara go with zero hesitation, and Jim's speech to tell her to lay low and enjoy a normal life doesn't quite have enough emotional punch, even as Barbara flashes back to memories of her father trying to keep her safe. Consider it tie-in syndrome, and not even Batgirl is immune - it makes sense that the new Batman would be promoted in every possible book, particularly the one featuring his daughter, but it does swallow up a bit of this book's breakneck momentum.

Another thing that definitely affects the flow of this storytelling is the artwork. Teaming up with Jake Wyatt and Michel Lacombe to handle breakdowns, these might be the most tightly packed pages I've ever seen Babs Tarr accomplish. For people reading these comic books on a mobile device, that splitting of each panel actually gives you more bang for your buck - seriously, Babs and Comixology, my morning commute thanks you - but as a unified page sometimes the panels don't always flow properly or the action looks disproportionately small. That all said, Tarr is still one of the most striking artists in the DC lineup, and I might argue that her scenes featuring Barbara out of costume might be even more evocative than her superheroic battles. (Barbara flashing her shades smugly at her roommate, Frankie, is such a great moment.) Colorist Serge Lapointe, meanwhile, continues to set the tone of the entire book, bolstering Tarr's lines with a bright but layered palette that has a ton of bounce and energy.

Ultimately, though, I've been putting in a lot of thought into a comic book that, let's be real, is all about the action. Writers Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher take extra care to not let Jim Gordon overshadow his daughter in her own book, letting the "rookie" act as backup while Barbara punches out Livewire. While this definitely provides Tarr plenty of opportunity to draw some fluid, frenetic fight sequences, this battle doesn't quite have the writing duo's trademark wit to it. It's solid punching and kicking, but it ends basically on a whim, with only a half-hearted instance of Barbara using her most powerful weapon - her brain. Ironically, it's only once the battle is over that Barbara is able to show her chemistry with her father, as she's able to give him some daughterly snark that I think could have gone a long way throughout the rest of the comic.

While there are some missed opportunities as far as the dynamic between Jim and Barbara Gordon, the sheer technique shown by the Batgirl crew makes this for a fun read, one that most people likely won't have the persnickety objections that I do. Batgirl still remains one of the brightest and most fun books in the DC lineup, and if the biggest complaint is that its most action-packed issue is too action-packed, it's a great problem for readers to have.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Daredevil #17
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Chris Samnee and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The end is nigh for Matt Murdock, and the Man Without Fear has to make a deal with the Devil himself - Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin. But when the Kingpin decides to renegotiate, it's a particularly brutal comeuppance for Daredevil. Artist Chris Samnee pulls no punches with his immaculate compositions, while writer Mark Waid sets up Matt for his grand finale.

If you're curious how to choreograph a fight comic, pay close attention to Chris Samnee, who's teaching a master class each and every month. It starts with his page layouts - Samnee just has this knack for knowing exactly how much detail and how many visual beats can reasonably fit on a single page, resulting in an experience that flows smoothly from image to image, even if he's packed nine panels each. What comes next is how he lays out each panel - in particular, there's a great beat where Matt leaps and flips down an escalator that evokes the heyday of Scott McDaniel on Nightwing. Samnee also has a great, underutilized skill of not just having a solid command of his character's designs, but he knows how they fit and interact with one another, which makes the choreography hit so much harder when you see Matt elbow the assassin Ikari in the face, or when the ninja stops a scythe precariously underneath Foggy Nelson's throat.

When you've got an artist this good, Mark Waid could rest on his laurels. He starts off this book strong, with a killer action-packed hook as Matt fights Ikari across the rooftops of San Francisco. Unfortunately, once we get that cold open, Waid trips the script up a little, as he has one too many flashback sequences - while the Shroud has been a recurring character since Matt moved to San Francisco, his presence here gets a little distracting, as a brief fight in an airport feels like it gets in the way of what really matters here: the no-holds-barred battle between Ikari and Daredevil, as well as Matt's meeting of the minds with the malevolent Wilson Fisk.

But after this brief stumbling point - combined with some dialogue-heavy scenes that sometimes feel melodramatic at the cost of clarity - Waid still knows how to add some emotion to this book. There's some genuine terror in Matt's eyes when he thinks all is lost, thanks to an unwanted assist from the Shroud, and Waid's take on the Kingpin is a sort of subtle evil that gives Vincent D'Onofrio a run for his money. The one thing that slightly holds back this book's tension, however, is that these are some pretty dire straits for Matt, but he's almost preternaturally calm - if he doesn't seem ultra-concerned by his closest friends being held hostage, why should we? It's a sort of emotional plateauing, and while that's given this run of Daredevil a consistency and a respite from the bleakness that came before it, it also can lead to a samey feeling for big issues like this.

Regardless of the scare factor not quite being here, there's still a ton to love about Daredevil, especially because of the gorgeous artwork that, honestly, we superhero fans don't really deserve. Samnee is a beast, and seeing this kind of virtuoso work makes me hope he's got something incredible planned once he and Waid exit the Man Without Fear. With the end nearing, Waid and Samnee have Matt Murdock right where they want him, and with that in mind, this issue is still definitely worth a look.

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