Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN/TMNT #4, DR. STRANGE #6, ACTION COMICS #50

"Doctor Strange" cover by Kris Anka
Credit: Kris Anka (Marvel Comics)
Credit: DC Comics

Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #4
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Freddie Williams II and Jeremy Colwell
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics and IDW Publishing
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Is it too late to start giving out 11s for these things?

If you've been holding out on DC and IDW Publishing's Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crossover, now is the time to get on board. After three issues leading up to the Dark Knight and the Heroes in a Half-Shell squaring off, James Tynion IV and Freddie Williams II absolutely crush this interlude issue, which winds up being the most entertaining chapter of this series yet.

Over the past few issues, Tynion has smartly mapped out what commonalities the Turtles and Batman have as characters - their ninjitsu training, their elderly father figures, their varied and robust rogues galleries - and pitted them against one another, causing some particularly fun sparks to fly. But now that the prerequisite superhero misunderstanding is over, Tynion has absolutely one-upped himself here with some truly precious characterization, as the Turtles crash at the most expensive of digs: the Batcave.

And it's that setting that proves to be this series' best selling point yet, even if the action is actually fairly minimal here. But you can't help but grin seeing how well these two franchises meld together, as we watch Michelangelo be scolded for skateboarding down the bannisters of Wayne Manor by a pizza-schlepping Alfred (or as Mikey adorably calls him, "Old Master Alfred!"), or watching Donatello geek out over Batman's state-of-the-art equipment, or even how Raphael and Batman share a little bit of emo-bro-bat-bonding time in Crime Alley. (And honestly, if a single panel of Batman eating a slice of pepperoni pizza is not the greatest thing you have seen in your entire life, then you need to get yourself checked out, because you have no heart.)

Yes, all of this is absolutely fan-service, but considering that Batman and Alfred have made a career out of training teenage heroes, suddenly a house filled with four of the doesn't seem so out of left field. Because everything in this story is so rooted in character, it's like watching two of your best friends meet and hit it off famously - the fun has just grown exponentially. Even as Tynion is setting up future plot points, everything he adds to the mix already is tried-and-true: For example, does adding Casey Jones to the mix make any sense? Not in the slightest - but there is nothing that is not awesome about watching a dude in a hockey mask stepping out of an interdimensional portal wielding a golf club and a hockey stick. Or the final cliffhanger, which promises some big things happening at Arkham Asylum? That's the sort of hook that has me coming back for more.

Meanwhile, the artwork by Freddie Williams II and Jeremy Colwell continues to impress, and only makes me sad that this crossover isn't an ongoing series. Williams should absolutely be on a short-list to keep working on the Turtles after this crossover, as he carefully balances between the dark and muscled street fighters of the original series and the expressive and cartoony scamps of the children's cartoons. The result is this is a book that's going to make young kids feel cooler than cool, and adults are going to have a gritty but accessible take on a nostalgic property. Williams absolutely sells fun expressive bits like Raph scowling as Batman and Leonardo spar, or Donnie grinning widely as he gets to watch himself beat up a bad guy in 360-degree holograms. (And again, the aforementioned panel of Batman eating pizza, I've probably cracked up a half-dozen times as I write this review. Just pure gold.)

When you read as many comic books as I read on a weekly basis, it's easy to name comic bookss that are smart. Or challenging. Or funny. Or just plain convoluted. But honestly, there are very, very few comic books out there that are as positively joyful as this book. You absolutely sense the enthusiasm that this creative team put into this book, and like all unexpected pizza toppings, once you're done, you can't wait until you enjoy it again. If you pick up one book from the Big Two this week, make it this one.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Doctor Strange #6
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Chris Bachalo, Java Tartaglia, Tim Townsend, Al Vey, Mark Irwin, John Livesay, Wayne Faucher, Victor Olazaba, and Jamie Mendoza
Letters by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

“Your inquisition begins now, Sorcerer Supreme.”

From the very start of Jason Aaron’s tenure on Doctor Strange, a dark cloud has hung over the mage of Greenwich Village. Now in Doctor Strange #6 that dark cloud has finally burst open and unleashed the “Last Days of Magic.” The enigmatic Empirikul, the technological entity behind the wholesale murder of Sorcerer Supremes, has made landfall on Earth and has put Stephen Strange dead in their sights. Jason Aaron, who has injected a new and grounded energy into the title, continues that streak here as Strange risks it all to stand against the Empirikul as all magic slowly bleeds from the world. Rendered in Chris Bachalo’s widescreen panels and given a high level of detail thanks to an army of inkers, Doctor Strange #6 is a beautifully harrowing start to “The Last Days of Magic” and a thrilling jumping-on point for those that have fallen behind on the adventures of Marvel’s preeminent practitioner of the mystic arts.

Right from the start, Jason Aaron lets us know that Dr. Strange is on the ropes, and he stays that way throughout this issue. Battered and quickly running out of tricks, Strange makes his stand against the Empirikul on his front doorstep as the magical world around him crumbles. Aaron, a writer who has already conjured a deep and eccentric world for the character, once again makes Strange relatable even as he scraps and scrapes for every bit of attack spells he can. Aaron’s Strange isn’t the hoity-toity mage that we all have seen in countless team-ups. This new Stephen is fighting for his life and his very existence as the 616's Sorcerer Supreme... and for the first time since this title’s debut, I don’t think he can win.

While Aaron continues to do great work on a characterization level, this issue also succeeds in fully selling the Empirikul as a threat. Before we only got teasing glimpses of their evil after the dust had settled. However, with this sixth issue, we see exactly how far they are willing to go with their crusade as Aaron gives us quick glances of how their attacks are effecting the world and the rest of Marvel’s magical community. He also finally shows us just how powerful their leader is, as he takes shot after shot of Strange’s most powerful attacks and it barely phases him, much like Aaron’s first major antagonist from The Mighty Thor, the God Butcher, yet another intensely powerful zealot who carried scars from his childhood thanks to otherworldly powers. Before the Empirikul was only a looming threat for Doctor Strange, but as this new story arc kicks off, we now see that they are more than just threats. They are coming to purge the magical world and nothing, not even Dr. Strange, can stand in their way.

Doctor Strange #6 has quite a lot going for it; strong character work, a solid jumping-on point for new readers, as well as functioning as a strong continuation of the narrative introduced in the debut issues. However, the biggest gun in its arsenal continues to be Chris Bachalo, whose frantic, sketchy style continues to be perfect for Strange’s world. Once again presented in widescreen panels and given a crazy level of detailing thanks to the whopping seven inkers credited to this issue, this sixth issue is a visual feast from start to finish. Fully capturing the chaos and insanity of a magical battle, Bachalo, along with coloring assistant Java Tartaglia, throws everything at the page and thankfully most of it sticks and sticks beautifully. Each scene is filled to bursting with some kind of insane detailing, like the tree that dominates the page as Strange attempts to entangle his enemies or the dense vertical panels showing how the rest of the magical world is fairing against the attacks. I’ve said before that you can turn to any page in a Chris Bachalo-drawn comic and find a gorgeous panel, and Doctor Strange #6 is yet another shining example of this.

The world has grown colder in the wake of Doctor Strange #6, and the embers of magic are quickly dying. While Jason Aaron started this new solo title with a comedic edge, it seems that he is turning a corner with its first major story arc. Aaron has brought Strange as low as he can go in the opening issue and even though we know there has to be a triumph at the end, things look very dire right out of the gate. Armed with an art team that refuses to give anything but their best Doctor Strange #6 is exactly the kind of start you want for your first big major story; one that digs its hooks into readers deep and refuses to let them go.

Credit: Aaron Kuder (DC Comics)

Action Comics #50
Written by Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder
Art by Aaron Kuder, David Messina, Javi Fernandez, Bruno Redondo, Vicente Cifuentes, Gaetano Carlucci, Juan Albarran, Tomeu Morey, Arif Prianto and Wil Quintana
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Nine months after his post-Convergence depowering, Clark Kent stands reinvigorated in the pages of the double-sized Action Comics #50. Yet surprisingly, this anniversary issue's expanded page count winds up being more hindrance than help, as Greg Pak, Aaron Kuder and an army of artists have to do some serious reaching to make this thin story stretch to 40 pages.

The problem with Action Comics #50 is that the creators are largely trying to play poker when the audience knows full well they're out of trump cards. Consider this a byproduct of the Superman titles operating in lockstep, but as Superman stages his last stand against Vandal Savage, many readers will recognize they've seen this all before. We've already seen stories about a Kryptonite-powered Superman, so that's not a surprise; we've already seen stories where Vandal Savage executes a large-scale act of destruction, so the tension is diminished; we've even already seen multiple stories where the Man of Steel is saved at the very last second by a cavalcade of DC Comics B-listers, so the luster of all these guest stars is gone. And this is all just in this arc! So with that in mind, Action Comics #50 feels a little bit like sequential art leftovers, because we already know what's about to happen - you can see it on the cover - but Pak and Kuder give no new spins to make this issue feel fresh, and no consequences to pay off any of the plot points from before.

It also doesn't help that the pacing of this story feels sluggish from the get-go, as Pak and Kuder start this issue a big info-dump recapping all of the Superman arcs since the "Truth" storyline began. Unfortunately, this method not only feels artificial, but it winds up seeming a little ridiculous when you mention all these storylines in the same double-page spread - once you see the whole picture this starkly, of course you're going to see all the seams, no matter who's writing this book. But ultimately, Vandal Savage's plan feels super drawn-out, and even though Pak and Kuder throw characters like Batman, Wonder Woman, Steel and Superman's blue imp friend Baku at the problem, it's a lot of throwing things at readers, rather than finding a deliberate hook to draw their interests in. (One example is Clark getting shot in the chest - do we need an extra line about the bullets actually being "an explosion of toxins" when our hero is about to be impaled by spikes anyway?) Unfortunately, for a big status quo-changing issue, the story comes off as very forgettable, very quickly, even as Pak and Kuder try so hard to capture Clark's voice - particularly the joy he feels once he finally regains his long-lost powers.

It doesn't help that this issue has a rotating art team that quickly flies off the rails. While Aaron Kuder lays down a strong foundation for this issue - wonky double-page splashes aside - it's jarring to suddenly be dropped into David Messina's artwork, which has a more cartoony and lushy-inked style similar to the Dodsons. On his own, Messina would have probably done a decent job holding up this book, but the problem with all of the artists on this book is that their styles clash, as the book bounces back to Kuder, Bruno Redondo and Vicente Cifuentes. Even the three colorists on this book have very different styles - from a page-to-page basis, Superman will alternate from being directly in the light to being completely in shadow, to occasionally having a painterly tinge to sometimes being completely washed out in reds and whites. The result is a very disconnected-looking book, which fails to sell Pak and Kuder's script.

What's probably most disappointing about a book like Action Comics #50 is that it almost assuredly was not an easy undertaking - Pak and Kuder are having to juggle storylines with two other books, plus the editors on this issue had to juggle nearly a dozen art and production crew members to put this book out.

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