Best Shots Reviews: BATGIRL ANNUAL #3, THORS #2, SEX CRIMINALS #11

"Sex Criminals #11" cover
Credit: Chip Zdarsky (Image Comics)
Credit: DC Comics

Batgirl Annual #3
Written by Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher
Art by Bengal, David Lafuente, Ming Doyle, Mingjue Helen Chen, Gabe Eltaeb and Ivan Plascencia
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

With the new Batman's status quo still in flux over in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's book, Barbara Gordon has become something more than just a vigilante: she's also become the new face of Gotham City. In Batgirl Annual #3, Babs crosses paths with Dick Grayson, Batwoman, Spoiler and the kids from Gotham Academy, providing a fun entree to several other series in the DC catalog.

As the cover suggests, the main draw to this book is the tension between Batgirl and her one-time lover, Dick Grayson. Having faked his own death to become an undercover Spyral agent, Grayson's had some high-flying adventures under Tim Seeley and Tom King's purview, but Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher are bringing the chickens home to roost here. This story, much like Grayson himself, is kind of a tease - there's no emotional reunion here, as Stewart and Fletcher keep bringing these star-crossed lovers tantalizingly close, only to push them away when they're just inches apart. The best gags in the book are when Barbara and Dick have near-misses, like Barbara crouching down to tie her shoe as Grayson races behind her, or her noticing something very suspicious about one bearded agent's derriere.

In general, though, this story feels more action-oriented than anything else, which occasionally makes it read a little too fast. However, it does give artist Bengal a chance to strut his stuff, as he channels Damion Scott and Jason Pearson with his kinetic, cartoony pages. Sometimes it can get a little too frenetic - there's one page of quick punches and kicks as Barbara and Helena Bertinelli team up against a cadre of costumed terrorists that approaches information overload with all the panels and movement - but honestly, I'd rather an artist like Bengal go overboard than to get into a particularly static rut.

Some of the other stories, however, don't quite have the punch that the Batgirl-Grayson crossover does. David Lafuente is one of my favorite artists in the business, but a short interlude featuring the Spoiler feels a little too exposition-heavy to give him that much to do. While Lafuente's characters feel expressive and cartoony, there's a little too much going on, and Stewart and Fletcher's overarching story with Gladius doesn't have any emotional hooks to keep it lively. Ming Doyle, meanwhile, gets to draw a Wicker Man-influenced sequence featuring Batwoman, which unfortunately feels like the weakest of the bunch - not only does Doyle's Batgirl and Batwoman look a little too rendered, the creepiness factor doesn't really translate into the art. Mingjue Helen Chen's artwork for the Gotham Academy crossover, however, looks spectacular - while the action beat doesn't quite feel big enough, her character designs are just beautiful, especially the way she makes Barbara's eyes pop underneath her mask.

Ultimately, Batgirl's accessibility and likeability remains its strongest asset, and it's a smart move from DC to use its rising popularity to showcase some of the other Bat-books on the stands. While this story occasionally reads as a little thin or hard to follow, the sagging middle is forgivable when you remember how strong the beginning and end are.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Thors #2
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Chris Sprouse, Goran Sudzuka, Karl Story, Dexter Vines and Marte Garcia
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Today, we gather to bury Beta Ray Thor, not to praise him. After  #1’s cliffhanger full of sound and fury Thors #2 is back on the beat with an issue that runs in place a bit longer than it should. Writer Jason Aaron fully commits to his beat cop re-imagining of Thor this time around, dispensing with the detective work that anchored the first issue and focusing instead on the less than admirable methods Ultimate Thor and his compatriots are willing to employ as they search for Ray’s killer. This in turn makes Thors #2 less about the ideal of and more about the ugly reality of a totalitarian police force made up of Norse gods. While Thors #2 isn’t an abject failure, it stumbles a bit with its second time out on shelves, but not so badly that the entire title sinks.

Thors #2 is all about grief this time out. The issue opens with a gorgeously somber funeral scene rendered by Chris Sprouse, along with inkers Karl Story and Dexter Vines, with muted colors by series colorist Marte Garcia. Allusions to The Wire were more than present during the debut issues, but here Jason Aaron fully leans into it, posing Ray’s body and the Thors much like the boozy wakes shown in the groundbreaking police drama. “A true murder police,” Old Chief Thor laments as they lay their fallen to rest. But, being Thors, they don’t stand idle in their loss for long. The Thors then quickly start to roust and question the usual suspects, and this is where Thors #2 starts to lose its footing.

While the main hook of the first issue was the red ball killing Jane Foster, Thors #2 largely ignores the open case, focusing instead on the Thors' bullheaded roughing up of the Hulks and various other so-called “suspects.” Aaron is still putting a lot of effort into making Ultimate Thor a compelling lead and for the most part, he succeeds. The Ultimate Thor of Thors #2 is an grief-stricken mess, but he still is aware enough to know he still has a case to put down, and put down quickly, but some of that character work is lost in the shuffle of the Thors “enhanced interrogations.” Aaron does us one better by positioning him as a foil to Thor the Unworthy, the disgraced Odinson, who acts as a sort of PI version of the Thors and who turns our boy back onto the case that hooked him and the audience to start with. Jason Aaron thankfully ends Thors #2 with yet another interesting cliffhanger involving Loki, big surprise there, and the body of one Donald Blake, but until that final scene be prepared to sift through a lot of mopey Thors and pointless action beats.

Unfortunately the disjointed feeling of Thors #2 isn’t just relegated to the scripting. After the emotional opening , artist Chris Sprouse takes a backseat to guest penciler Goran Sudzuka, who handles the majority of the center of Thors #2 only for Sprouse to return and bring it home for the climatic ending. Sudzuka’s pages are fine, in of themselves, as they mostly render the aforementioned pointless action scenes, which includes a cartoonish splash page of the Thors descending on a group of unsuspecting Hulks, but after this issue’s opening, you can’t help but feel that Sudzuka’s pencils are a step down in quality. Colorist Marte Garcia, as per usual, ties both artist’s pages together with a wonderful set of muted and realistic color choices, but the differences between the two artists are still too many to reconcile. If Goran Sudzuka had handled the entirety of Thors #2, I can’t help but feel the issue would have fared better for it, but unfortunately we are left with a set of pages that match the jumbled nature of a script that took its eye off the ball.

Walking a beat is tough and its twice that when your friend and partner has just been killed and you don’t have a single lead to go on. Thors #2, at its very heart, is still a loving homage to detective fiction and that in turn, proved to be its downfall this month. While Ultimate Thor may be the Thor Corps' top cop, he’s still vulnerable and hot-headed like we know Thor to be. Thors #2 gives Jason Aaron and his art team an outlet to allow Ultimate Thor to vent his anger and engage in some good old fashion wanton destruction before putting his head on straight and getting back to the case. Thors #2 may be the grief period, but in Battleworld, you don’t have long to grieve and if you do, you may just end up the next subject of an Irish wake.

Credit: Chip Zdarsky (Image Comics)

Sex Criminals #11
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Chip Zdarsky
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

After a lengthy hiatus, it might not be the best idea for a book like Sex Criminals to go in as many different directions as it does. For new readers, this may feel a little foreign - and no, that's not what she said - but longtime fans will still appreciate the humor that Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky bring to this book, even as it's fragmented among several different plot points.

In certain ways, it feels like Sex Criminals is taking a page out of Chew's playbook - now that Jon and Suzie know there are more people out there with sex-fueled powered, this book has become more sweeping in scale - and in the cast. Unfortunately, for new readers (as well as those who have been waiting since the last issue came out in February), that's not exactly the most user-friendly way to get people back into the mix. Thankfully, though, Fraction brings a humor and a humanity to his characters that make them likeable enough to follow. Take, for example, Douglas D. Douglas, an orderly at a retirement home who feels a little weird, a little awkward, but with a sweetness and simplicity that doesn't make him seem overly creepy.

But the thing about this cold open that's frustrating is that there's not a ton of payoff here, comedically or otherwise, and then Fraction drops us right back into Jon and Suzie's story. (Suzie even notices that the readers are back: "Oh hey, hi, it's me again. My book again. Hi.") Unfortunately, Suzie and Jon are kind of the anchor around this book's neck, at least as far as this issue is concerned - beyond a funny montage as they make their way to Miami, there's no weight behind them telling sex guru Jazmine St. Cocaine that they rob banks, and so there's no weight behind them getting kicked out of her office.

Where this story does work, however, is with two interludes featuring couples in the heat of the moment - Jon's doctor, for example, has a moment with Kegelface that dives into the tangled morass of feminism and open relationships, while Robert and Rachelle have an open, honest and even funny conversation about sexual experience and boundaries. These interludes work because it puts the "sex" into Sex Criminals - these are topics that not every comic can readily delve into, and Fraction clearly has a thoughtfulness on the subject that few others in the industry possess.

Chip Zdarsky, meanwhile, also knows how to balance that line between cartoonishly funny and strikingly, sympathetically human. For a book that's about sex, Zdarsky isn't exploitative at all about it - there are scenes with characters performing sex acts on-panel that surprisingly doesn't feel half as cheap as some of the buxom beauties in half the superhero books out there. In particular, the level of detail Zdarsky gives Jon is really spectacular - there's a CSI: Miami beat that he just nails in three panels, as Jon declares "it's time we go stalk a perfect strange... and wait for him to beat off." Zdarsky's colorwork also is spectacular - there's a liveliness and energy to all of his pages, but it's never overpowering or overrendered.

For people who have been hearing about the Sex Criminals hype, unfortunately, this might not be the issue for you to try it out. Indeed, fans who have been waiting for months might still be a little disappointed in this book's not-so-triumphant return. But like all things with sex, this book is a far better experience if you come into it without inflated expectations - there's a charm and intelligence to Sex Criminals underneath all the gags, and hopefully we'll see more of it soon.

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