Best Shots Reviews: ROBIN WAR #1, ALL-NEW X-MEN #1, BARRIER #1, More

DC Comics Decmber 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Robin War #1
Written by Tom King
Art by Khary Randolph, Alain Mauricet, Jorge Corona, Andres Guinaldo, Walden Wong, Rob Haynes, Emilio Lopez, Chris Sotomayor, Gabe Eltaeb and Sandra Molina
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual and Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The original Robin might have been raised as an acrobat - but with dozens of Gotham teenagers wearing his colors, a juggler might needed even more. Writer Tom King gets a taste of the crossover life with the first chapter of Robin War, but this overcrowded cast and army of artists might be too much for even this up-and-coming superstar. While there's plenty of potential with this series, the end result feels like DC is finally reaping what they've sowed with their overly large Bat office.

Ultimately, part of this book's problem is that its main goal - the unification of everyone who's ever worn the mantle of Robin - has already been done so admirably by James Tynion IV and Scott Snyder over in Batman and Robin Eternal. But where Tom King really thrives with Robin War is with the "other" Robins - the unsanctioned team of Gotham teenagers from We Are Robin by Lee Bermejo and Jorge Corona. We Are Robin hasn't been around very long, but there's already been a body count thanks to Alfred Pennyworth's band of wannabe vigilantes, and it's that thread that King picks up nicely, when a Robin accidentally shoots a cop in the line of duty.

You'll likely see shades of Civil War here, as King shows us the waves of public opinion that demand laws against the Robins - although unlike Civil War, it's difficult to see any upside to letting Duke Thomas and the rest of the Robins continue on their current trajectory. That's ultimately the main weakness of Robin War as a concept - not only does King have to jump around between an overwhelming number of characters and subgroups, ranging from Damian Wayne to Dick Grayson to the kids at Gotham Academy, but there's no real debate at the heart of the story to keep things lively.

On the contrary, most of the characters in this book come off like jerks - Jim Gordon gets to practice his "I was just following orders" speech as the armored BatCop gets to round up a bunch of untrained kids, while Damian also decides to punch way beneath his weight class by sucker-punching Duke. By the time we've actually gotten to the other three Robins - not to mention the Court of Owls, who is behind this random-seeming series of events - it's tough to feel invested. Beyond some brief sparks with Duke Thomas, King isn't able to inject his trademark humanity into this issue, with even his work with Dick Grayson feeling surprisingly surface-level.

The ever-shifting artwork also occasionally presents a challenge. Robin War starts with its best foot forward, as Khary Randolph's animated artwork looks stylish and emotional before taking a sharp and tragic turn. Jorge Corona from We Are Robin also puts in some great work, particularly with a sequence featuring Duke Thomas escaping a police car, which winds up becoming one of the highlights of the book. The other two art teams, however, don't fare nearly as well - Alain Mauricet feels too flat for scenes of police brutality around the city, while Andres Guinaldo and Walden Wong wind up making the three "professional" Robins look unenergetic and static. The differences in styles between these four groups of artists - even with Rob Haynes working on breakdowns - is very noticable, and really hampers the flow of this book.

The Batman office has long been DC's bread and butter, and with Batman selling like hotcakes, it's no surprise that DC would put out spinoff after spinoff after spinoff - with the current crop actually being pretty high-quality across the board. But there comes a point of oversaturation even with the Dark Knight Detective, and I think we're seeing that play out with Robin War, a series that struggles to fit in its expansive cast even with 36 pages of story. Some of this isn't Tom King's fault - like I said, DC's been tapping this particular well for months already - but at the same time, there isn't enough depth to Robin War to really ruffle anyone's feathers.

Credit: Marvel Comics

All-New X-Men #1
Written by Dennis Hopeless
Art by Mark Bagley, Andrew Hennessy and Nolan Woodard
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

“The X-Men didn’t change the future. The future changed us.”

Scott Summers has never been more right. It has been a little over a year since the original five X-Men were flung forward in time in order to save all of mutantkind, but still, they have yet to find their place in this world. The all-new All-New X-Men #1 looks to change that, and it really does try. Taking a page from some of the more youth oriented X books like Ultimate X-Men and Wolverine and the X-Men, writer Dennis Hopeless casts the team not as young revolutionaries, but simply as young people, working to find their purpose in a world that has found a renewed reason to hate and fear them. All-New X-Men #1 is a meandering debut issue that nails the personalities of these young heroes, but not so much the plot as of yet. While the rest of the X-books seem concerned with the plight of mutants as a whole All-New X-Men #1 just wants to keep these kids sane. Time will tell if that is even possible.

All-New X-Men #1, being a team book, falls into the frustrating trap of having to gather the team before actually showing them as a team. Most of the book’s action revolves around Hank and his country-hopping road trip in his TARDIS-like van to gather the members of his wandering band of mutants. I’ve spoken before about just how much this narrative structure frustrates me and All-New X-Men #1 doesn’t do much to convince me otherwise, however writer Dennis Hopeless does do a good job of establishing that these characters have had somewhat of a life outside of their exploits as X-Men, and that is a welcome change from them just being apart for the sake of coming together at the end.

In following these characters out of costume, Hopeless makes them feel more like regular teens in just one issue than the majority of Brian Michael Bendis’ era ever did. The real strength of All-New X-Men #1 is just how teen-oriented it feels. Gone is the high-minded rhetoric of the first volume and in its place are just a group of kids trying to do the right thing for themselves and help people along the way. Hank’s idea of a road trip is a proactive, if a bit Bohemian way to return to his roost, while Scott is just attempting to keep a low profile until he is forced back into the hero life thanks to his own sense of right and wrong. While we still don’t really have a big problem for them to face just yet (aside from the cleverly named Ghosts of Cyclops, a group of militant mutants using the older Scott’s image as a banner of hate), seeing this team operate as teenagers struggling for an identity first and superheroes second gives them a personality beyond the heroics; something modern X-books have moved away from to their detriment.

Adding to the youth-oriented feel of All-New X-Men #1 is artist Mark Bagley along with inker Andrew Hennessy and colorist Nolan Woodard. Bagley’s expressive style and wiry character designs are a jarring change from Stuart Immonen’s action-oriented style (a reverse of when Immonen took over Ultimate Spider-Man from Bagley), but one that suits this new All-New X-Men just fine, despite him not having much to do during this debut. Most of the pages are dedicated to the team talking to one another, and while that isn’t the most visually arresting thing to see in a comic book, Bagley’s pencils, Hennessy’s defining inks and Woodard’s bright color choices set All-New X-Men #1 apart from its action-heavy counterpart.

While the struggle for mutantkind and the ghosts of the past still hang over All-New X-Men #1, the debut issues is a surprisingly character-centric story that allows the teen heroes to be more teen than hero. The lack of a central villain and direction certainly hinder this debut from being a great one, that said, the germ of a great book is still found in Dennis Hopeless’ youthful take on the leads. Coupled with some energetic artwork All-New X-Men #1 has the potential to be the fun and breezy teen mutant book that the X-Men line has so sorely needed.

Credit: DC Comics

Harley’s Little Black Book #1
Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner
Art by Amanda Conner, John Timms, Dave Johnson, Paul Mounts and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The monthly Harley Quinn book provides readers with a regular dose of self-referential insanity, and it has remained a staple alternative to the far too serious epics that have held the fragile post-Flashpoint DC publishing line together. However, after countless seasonal specials, a mini-series spin-off with Power Girl, and now this new bi-monthly team-up title labelled Harley’s Little Black Book, one has to wonder if the concept has been stretched past the point of its own elasticity.

The premise of the book in which, according to the solicitations, “Harley meets (and almost certainly annoys) the greatest heroes and villains of the DC Universe” scarcely seems to have a point of difference from the usual hijinks that the anarchistic scrapper normally gets up to. Harley’s flimsy premise for wanting to team-up with Wonder Woman is a setup typical for the character, although in many ways it mirrors the similar stories that the writing team has already told with Power Girl in the main title. Indeed, that story was itself rehashed in part during the Harley Quinn and Power Girl mini-series that ended just last month, so this is well trodden ground by now. So then it comes down to execution, and Palmiotti and Conner’s script just feels far too familiar to break free of their own formula.

The major departure point for the first issue of this series at least is the inclusion of art by Amanda Conner. Longtime fans of Palmiotti and Conner’s Power Girl series will find that it is a joy to see her distinctive style on these characters, especially during the hilarious scene in which Harley and Wonder Woman find themselves in each other’s costumes. Even some of the visual humor is a little worn, including another sight gag about Harley’s bust being too small for another hero’s costume, but it always remains energetic and a fully realized expression of train-of-thought art. The transition to John Timm’s pages is never jarring, thanks in part to flashbacks and location changes.

There is nothing about this book that couldn’t have been told in the pages of the regular monthly title, and while fans will undoubtedly love the extra issues each year, it would have been much more pleasing to see a different creative team tackle their version of the character. At the bloated length of almost forty story pages, it is also difficult to justify the slightly higher price point for the sake of an extended version of the same creative team’s stories. Yet with Suicide Squad due out in cinemas next year, the cult of Harley Quinn is only going to get stronger.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Spidey #1
Written by Robbie Thompson
Art by Nick Bradshaw and Jim Campbell
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Few Marvel characters have had their early years revisited more than the Amazing Spider-Man, and this week, Silk writer Robbie Thompson and Wolverine and the X-Men alum Nick Bradshaw take their swing at the Friendly Neighborhood Webslinger. In many ways, this comic isn't a revolution - but perhaps even more surprisingly, it doesn't aim to be one, either. While die-hard readers may think this pales in comparison to Brian Michael Bendis' naturalistic Ultimate Spider-Man, new and young readers will find a lot to like in this cartoony and accessible debut.

For those who know Robbie Thompson's TV background, this might not be surprising. Spider-Man isn't the type of character that needs a pilot - he and his origins are already well-established, even for people who don't read comics. Instead, Thompson balances action and high school drama, establishing the setting that Peter Parker resides in. Like I've said before, it's not the newest or freshest take on the character - it actually reminds me a lot of Greg Weisman's Spectacular Spider-Man.

But then again, Spectacular Spider-Man is a heck of a good series to try to emulate. Thompson knows that Spidey's sense of humor is his hook for readers, so he immediately has him clowning around, not just with his internal monologue (which comes off as way less annoying than, say, TV's Ultimate Spider-Man), but having him take selfies with webbed-up criminals. Even when Peter doesn't have his mask on, his wit is always on rapid-fire, whether he's internally freaking out about Gwen Stacy beating up Flash Thompson, or ruefully saying that he has to stop going on field trips where supervillains show up. Thompson also quickly establishes all the relationships in Peter's life, with a great nod to Veronica Mars when describing his once-positive dynamic with uber-jock Flash.

But it's the artwork that ultimately makes this book transcend its cover band status. Nick Bradshaw is the heir apparent to Arthur Adams, with his expressive and cartoony characters being great for younger readers. In particular, I love the attention that Bradshaw gives to body types - Peter isn't just thin, he's actually a little guy, and Gwen definitely still has a couple of inches on him. (It's okay, Peter, puberty will happen to you. Someday.) Once Peter gets in the Spider-suit, meanwhile, the action is fluid and dynamic, and Bradshaw even gives a nice tip of the hat to original series artist Steve Ditko, keeping Spidey's eyes narrow rather than oversized.

If there's anything that might hold back Spidey, it's that there's nothing really new being added to the mythos here - it's absolutely a retread of the same old settings with only minor reconfigurations. For longtime readers, this may get pretty stale, pretty quick, even with Nick Bradshaw's artwork looking this good. But I would absolutely recommend this book for anyone looking to introduce their young reader to Ol' Webhead, because this trip down Nostalgia Lane is always better as a group trip.

Credit: Marcos Martin & Muntsa Vicente

Barrier #1
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente
Lettering by Rob Bowman
Published by Panel Syndicate
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Even when dealing with established characters such as Doctor Strange (The Oath) or the Batman universe (False Faces), the coming together of the Brian K. Vaughan/Marcos Martin creative team has a habit of elevating the familiar to greater heights. Their digital collaboration The Private Eye was not only one of the most thrillingly original works of recent memory, but it pushed the boundaries of what “pay-what-you-want webcomics” could be by virtue of their names being attached. As the latter comes out in print, the experiment starts again with the equally arresting Barrier, a fascinating mix of topical immigration issues, drug cartels and something wholly unexpected.

The bilingual tale begins innocuously enough in the Hidalgo County area of Pharr, Texas. Landowner Liddy has found a horse’s head on her property, and has seen The Godfather enough times to know that it means the cartel is sending her a message. The book changes gears, and languages, with the introduction of Oscar in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. His epic journey ultimately takes him over the border where his path crosses with Liddy’s, but that is just the beginning of their adventure.

The incredibly topical title is rooted in the border politics that mires the debate on both sides of the spectrum, as well as the narrative vibe of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Liddy is a down-to-earth character, but she and the people she looks to for protection are still tied to their inherited prejudices, both positive and negative. Writing half the book in Spanish was a bold choice for a first issue, but the strength of the storytelling is such that you can sense the urgency and desperation of Oscar based on Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vincente’s stunning visuals. Like Vaughan’s previous work Y: The Last Man or Saga, the bigger story has always been a backdrop to these salient points, and the bilingual presentation is almost challenging readers to learn new tricks, telling us that only in trying to understand we will get a fully informed picture and burst through the artificial ‘barrier’.

On the title drop page, Marcos Martin’s name is listed first, which is incredibly appropriate given how art-led this project appears to be. Martin’s clean and precise line art is what digital comics were made for, and while Vicente’s colors aren’t quite as hyper vivid as they needed to be in The Private Eye - replacing all the colors of the spectrum with the earthy tones of the desert country - it is nevertheless cinematic. Presented in the widescreen landscape format, the art team uses the orientation wisely, either drawing the eye across large vistas, focusing us on a small object or creating rapid motion through long, thin panels. Sometimes it is as simple as four contrasting pages with different shades of the same sky dividing the leads to show the passing of time. It would give away far too much to talk about the content of the final few pages, but the subjects make full use of the extended panels and allow Vicente some radical color options.

Despite its extended length, Barrier rips along at a pace, but never neglects the core characters who will carry us forward. Apart from being a compelling and beautifully crafted read, the 54-page debut issue comes at the bargain price of whatever you feel like paying for it. Of course, it goes without saying that if you want to keep seeing quality comics like this, a couple of dollars from every reader wouldn’t go astray.

All-Star Section Eight #6
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by John McCrea and John Kalisz
Lettering by Pat Brosseau
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The revived Section Eight has seen many ups and downs since its return as part of the loose "DC You" collective, and what started out as an incredibly strong dose of fun injected back into the publisher’s universe got caught between a desire for gross-out comedy and genuine emotion. Yet more than anything, Garth Ennis and John mcCrea’ book began as a musing on the nature of the superhero genre, and by last month’s issue became a complex series of meta-textual gags that name-checked the DC editorial staff. In this final issue of the mini-series, Ennis not only returns to this ideas but does so with a disarming tragi-comic sense of pathos as well.

It’s a bit like a twisted version of It’s A Wonderful Life as Six-Pack is convinced by an angelic version of Superman that his life is not a sham. In the previous issue, Ennis had his characters have a fourth-wall breaking conversation with their publishers to demand a reprint of one of his older series. This month he delves deep into the idea that all works of fiction are in the mind of the creator and those who observe them, and who is to say what is “real”? Superman enigmatically recalls the myth of the world being created by a dreamer, with reality ending when the dreamer awakens. The same is true of the reading experience, after all, with the temporary reality ending when we turn the last page. It’s entirely likely the whole series has been in the alcohol-fueled dreams of a rotund Six-Pack lying freezing on the street, but it doesn’t make the heartbreaking realities that Dogwelder and the Grappler have to face in this issue any less real.

Even John McCrea’s surreal grotesqueries are tinged with a sadness in this final issue. Six-Pack’s appearance has largely been used as the literal butt of a joke, but you can feel his heart breaking in certain panels as he realizes he’s not what he thinks he is. Similarly, the faceless mask of Dogwelder is confronted with the reality that he has been escaping from, and even behind the shiny protective gear, there is a complex set of human emotions at play. The final shot of Grappler would be devastating if Six-Pack wasn’t so far gone in his own delusions. As the members of Section 8 run straight into their leader’s version of reality, we get a sudden sense of just how close to the bone the gritty absurdity of McCrea’s art actually is.

As the series comes to a close, Six-Pack at least remains convinced of his own heroism, but Ennis has already made his point about the futility of the never-ending superhero genre. “This is his world. His dream. Whichever,” muses the narrative voice (or is it our own?) “As dreams go... well. I suppose you could do worse.” It’s rare thing that a comic book feels not only fully complete but deflating at the same time, with a character that appears to be wholly contented within and observably tragic end. As every comic book reader knows, the end of one book is merely the beginning of the next chapter of the endless story.

Credit: DC Comics

The Sheriff of Babylon #1
Written by Tom King
Art by Mitch Gerads
Lettering by Nick Napolitano
Published by Vertigo
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

As Vertigo is reinvigorated with new blood coming into the fold, Tom King (Vision, Grayson) and Mitch Gerads (The Punisher, The Activity) help keeps the pulse alive with the debut of The Sheriff of Babylon. It's a murder mystery set during the early years of the Iraq War, with inspiration from King's actual experience as a C.I.A. operations officer being a foundation. Readers, you're looking at one of the best premieres of the year.

Chris Henry was brought to Baghdad to train a new Iraqi police force, but when one of his trainees end up murdered, a trail of intrigue and wartime drama is left behind. Within the first few pages, we get to know Chris as a kind man stuck in a very unkind environment. Everybody is tense and there's no room for mistakes. When Chris tries to reason with a bombing suspect, it's something where we see what his core is truly made of. Now, the narrative isn't just from Chris; it shifts to Nassir, the last cop in Baghdad, and the calculating Sofia.

Having been set in a raw background and an even more raw time in our history, helps King and Gerads set up a complex and engaging story that isn't your by-the-book gritty crime drama. The non-linear timeline adds another element to the mystery as the pieces are all laid out, but you can't quite see the final picture. Tom King has really come along this past year with the Vision's ongoing at Marvel being one of the best-reviewed books of the year, and Sheriff is looking to give King another hit on his hand.

Comic Twart alumni Mitch Gerads' style comes across as the lovechild between John Paul Leon (who does the cover art for the series, incidentally) and fellow Twart brother Evan "Doc" Shaner. The linework is detailed, but where really Gerads excels is his execution of making the drama unfold with body language. The violence, while explicit, is very in your face, but Gerads knows when to pull back. He has built a resume with books that deal with excessive violence, but it's not the centerpiece of this story. I don't want to say the violence helps move the story, but it shows that this background is intensely serious. All-black panels featuring just the word "bang" increase the drama, and shows a perfect example of King and Gerads knowing when to hold back.

Having Gerads pull double-duty on colors makes for a well-made palette. The changing of scenes reminds me of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, where each color meant a new surrounding and cast of characters. King doesn't over complicate by bringing in a whole spectrum of characters to follow and keeps the narrative nice and tight. Combined with Gerads' panel composition and color key, it makes for a solid first issue that has a fascinating start.

Sheriff of Babylon isn't your usual Vertigo flare, but with the brand looking to redefine itself in the coming years, it works as a fine example of a creative team showing readers the best of what they've got. Wartime stories are usually reserved for the likes of the Cold War or WW II, but with the more contemporary setting, it's time for audiences to be treated to a whole new side these kind of stories.

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