Marvel April 2016 cover
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Batman #51
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capello, Danny Miki and FCO Placencia
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

What is Gotham?

It’s a question that’s long permeated Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's nearly unprecedented run on Batman. Is Gotham its villains? Its heroes? Its geography? Its ordinary men and women?

I’d argue that to Scott Snyder, the answer is this — Gotham City is its history, from the den of the Court of Owls to Bruce Wayne’s first steps as a vigilante during the Zero Year to the twisted, convoluted timeline of the Joker himself. And with their final issue together on the flagship Bat-title, Snyder and Capullo don't just wrap up their run by looking back on all the arcs that have come before, but does so in an intimate character drama that owes much of its structure to their first issue during the "New 52."

Over the course of the past 50 issues, Snyder and Capullo’s Batman has lived, died and returned on both a physical and spiritual level, and this final issue shows the never-ending battle beginning once more for the reborn Bruce Wayne. Outside of the narrative, we know Snyder has to clean house for incoming writer Tom King, but there’s a gentleness and kindness to this epilogue, as Snyder doesn’t just tie up loose ends, but almost makes amends to the characters he’s put through the wringer these past five years. This is not a run that ends with lingering wounds, but a Batman reborn without his scars; a book featuring a mended Alfred, a hale and hearty Jim Gordon sporting his mustache and cigarettes once more, and even a fleeting moment of peace with the Joker, whose inevitable return to villainy is pushed back to another day.

But this isn’t a issue that’s just about its characters’ status quo. Like I said before, Snyder and Capullo’s Batman is about history, and it’s not just about the history of Gotham — it’s about the history of this run and this title as a 75-year tapestry. I remember when Snyder and Capullo's Batman #1 hit comic book stores, standing out as a shining example of the promise and potential DC Comics and the "New 52" had to offer, and it’s gratifying to see Snyder using this last issue to look back on that moment, as well. There are so many great callbacks to the first issue of this stellar run, from the return of the column “Gotham Is…” to another breakout at Arkham Asylum, to the same smirk on Batman’s face when he’s ready to bust some crime. Bruce said it in the first issue, but the sentiment remains the same, 50 issues later: “There’s no place like home.”

While Snyder takes a few cute turns with some of these bits — after all, this is his last full issue, not the first of another arc — a recurring theme that’s come up again and again is that the citizens of Gotham don’t operate in a vacuum, with ordinary people like Harper Row, Duke Thomas and even Jim Gordon being inspired and transformed in the wake of Batman’s heroism. But this finale has a wonderful moment on the other side of the good guy-bad guy divide, as Batman confronts a nameless initiate of the Whisper Gang, a small-time group he effortlessly took down while hunting the Court of Owls in this title’s first arc. But Snyder winds up bringing back gold with this supremely deep cut, showing that no matter how small you are, in Gotham, you always have a history — and that history is always tied to the Bat.

But while I’ve given a lot of praise to Scott Snyder, the man who deserves even more credit is Greg Capullo, whose run on Batman led to what can only be described as an unprecedented comic book comeback. There are so many great visual nods to what Capullo has done before in this issue, from the silhouette of Batman slashing across the sky to the shadows and moodiness of the Batcave. Yet Capullo also harkens back to Batman’s past here, particularly as we get a better look at his redesign of the iconic Bat-suit. With purple lining to the cape evoking the purple gloves of Batman’s very first adventures in Detective Comics #27, while the yellow outline around the Bat-symbol on Bruce’s chest winds up being a unique way of remixing the traditional logo with the oft-used yellow oval from the 1960s.

But what’s also fascinating is seeing Capullo’s evolution over the span of nearly 50 issues, taking only the barest minimum of a respite before diving back into what could only have been a grueling artistic marathon. With inker Danny Miki, Capullo seems more fluid, more relaxed — a victory lap rather than the jagged, almost jumpy panelwork of the first issue. And similar to Snyder, there’s a more relaxed tone to Bruce, who looks almost youthful as he gives a small smile to Alfred before he leaves. Even dramatic moments like a nighttime meeting with Commissioner Gordon on the rooftop of the GCPD building feels like the return of old friends — while Capullo’s silhouette work is absolutely gorgeous, there’s no scariness in these shadows. FCO Placencia, who has also been on this book since the beginning, lends such a sense of mood to everything — while Gotham is cloaked in darkness throughout this issue, his use of gradients to show the light is truly masterful.

Throughout the "New 52" run of Batman, there’s been a recurring question of “what is Gotham?” And while Scott Snyder might argue that Gotham is its history, I might do him one better: Gotham is its creators. There have been dozens of writers, artists, letterers and editors toiling over Batman’s 75-year career, but I can think of very few who have delved this deeply to flesh out Batman and the city that orbits around him than Snyder and Capullo. Runs like this aren’t just rare, they’re unheard of — and to have a run like this actually be good is even more unprecedented. This conclusion is less of a fast-paced finale and more of an epilogue, taking the scenic route through 51 issues of blockbuster storytelling. Over the past five years, Snyder and Capullo have gone through a herculean undertaking, mapping and building Gotham from the ground up. I can only imagine what it must feel like now they get to just sit back and enjoy the view.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Avengers Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill Omega #1
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Daniel Acuna, Angel Unzueta, and Matt Wilson
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Big changes are in store for the Marvel Universe and Pleasant Hill is ground zero for all of them. As the Avengers close in on Baron Zemo and his gaggle of supervillains, bent on using Kobik for a new Zemo-inspired world order, writer Nick Spencer uses his siege story as the spring board for all sorts of big shifts for the Marvel landscape. Though Spencer has his eye on the bigger picture, the actual story of Assault on Pleasant Hill gets lost and its denouement ends up falling a little flat as major characters make their return and the Avengers settle into their new status quo going into Civil War II. While rendered beautifully by the artistic one-two punch of Daniel Acuna and Angel Unzueta, with colors by Acuna and Matt Wilson, Avengers Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill Omega #1 reads more like an extended preview of things to come and less like a finale issue.

Assault on Pleasant Hill has been a strange beast of an event. Starting as a creepy examination of an unconventional supervillain prison, Assault on Pleasant Hill Omega finally succumbs to the action heavy presentation of modern events, but with slightly more speechifying thanks to Nick Spencer’s gift for dialogue. But while the punching and the fighting forms most of the issue’s action beats, Spencer seems barely concerned with playing with the large assortment of characters at his disposal and is laser-focused on shuffling this story along in order to get to some of the bigger shifts for the company in the days ahead.

And, believe me, they are big. Like, cosmic-scale big in one case. But while the elements of the story that are meant to get us excited succeed, the main story of Assault on Pleasant Hill Omega falters; feeling almost shuffled to the side in order to give these new line-wide elements room to breathe. That is pretty disappointing, to be honest, especially since the event itself has proved to be more interesting than I expected it to be. Spencer handles the giant cast fairly well with Steve Rogers, Baron Zemo, and a returning Red Skull being the standouts, but unfortunately, he quickly shifts away from these great characterizations in order to lay more groundwork for other books once he truly gets going with them. And because of that Avengers Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill Omega ends up feeling like an incomplete story when it could have been so much more.

While the narrative reads like a choppy look at things to come artists Daniel Acuna and Angel Unzueta keep the visuals tight and vibrant, aided in kind by colors from Acuna himself and Matt Wilson. Handling most of the action scenes in his trademark charcoal-like style, Daniel Acuna keeps each action scene tightly blocked, with each character getting a big hero moment. He even delivers one hell of an “Avengers Assemble!” single page splash as a newly de-aged Steve Rogers rallies both the All-New All-Different and Uncanny squads for a full frontal assault on Zemo’s position.

He also gives us a hilarious scene of the Avengers taking advantage of Zemo’s tendency to monologue. As Zemo drones on and one about the new world order in widescreen panels, in the background Quicksilver whisks hostages away without a sound while the Vision and Brother Voodoo pick up stragglers with well-placed portals. It is a nice bit of visual comedy and one that shows that Acuna can do more than just pretty splash pages of people punching each other. Handling the quieter expository scenes is Angel Unzueta. Unzueta’s smooth, Stefano Caselli-like pencils don’t really wow in the way that Acuna’s do, but that isn’t that big of a hindrance. Unzueta sells the emotion of these intimate scenes and even though his facial expressions come across a bit wooden, he still offers a nice contrast to the bombast of Daniel Acuna.

Avengers Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill Omega #1 has its eyes locked on the future of the Marvel Universe but in doing so, it loses its own plot. Though Nick Spencer took what could have been another run of the mill lead---up to a major event and did some interesting things with it and the characters featured therein, you can’t help but feel disappointed at this finale, despite some real surprises. While rendered by two very talented artists that provide a stark contrast in styles for this last issue, Assault on Pleasant Hill Omega doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #49
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Superhero comic books have survived for the better part of the last century by largely adhering to a formula that is predicated on a delicate balance. The heroes will necessarily triumph over the villains because they are not only smarter and more powerful than their adversaries, but because they are in a position of moral authority as well. Geoff Johns’ lengthy "Darkseid War" event has been a fascinating character study simply because it flips the tables on established entities, imbuing the Justice League not only with unfathomable power but by corrupting them to the point of moral ambiguity as well. This issue aims to remind us that power does not necessarily make the hero.

The penultimate chapter in the "Darkseid War" shifts the chess pieces even more erratically around the board. Johns’ Justice League (or Justice Gods, as they are currently known) has formed some questionable alliances in the last few years, and the true natures of Lex Luthor and the Crime Syndicate are glimpsed in this chapter. The desperation of these acts simply adds to the sense that we are playing with high stakes when we pick up each issue of this gripping saga, so much so that the Flash’s inability to move when action is required comes with a palpable sense of dread. The trope of an impending birth, in this case Superwoman’s child, is used as a ticking time-bomb as the promise of a “secret weapon” in her womb is interspersed throughout the action.

Johns plays with the power dynamics skillfully, with Lex perhaps best understanding what the League turns away from. “You think you need a league to get things done,” the Darkseid-infused Lex argues. “You have no idea how to use your power.” Perhaps they do, and they are holding their punches due to that same moral compass that has kept them steady. While Lex rages, another hero sacrifices his power to release the poison from his mind. It is an act not because of power, but in spite of it, and maybe that is the fine line between hero and villain.

Jason Fabok’s blockbuster art style is elevated in this high-octane climax, with Brad Anderson’s blinding colors highlighting the raw power being wielded by these gods. There’s a desolation to the landscape that hangs over everything in these pages, and the inverted X-ray stylings of Superman or cosmic blasts of a Boom Tube are all the brighter for their contrast. Yet despite the massive arsenal that is on display in this outing, Fabok keeps the epic focused on its core. Big splash page reveals are all the more effective because they follow the controlled pace of a rigid set of panels that slowly build up to a gasp-worthy moment.

More than anything, Johns knows how to stage a thriller, and the final pages of Justice League invariably lead to a cliffhanger. No matter how the dust settles next month, when "Darkseid War" finally reaches its conclusion, this saga will go down as one of the essential Justice League stories in the history of the medium.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Dr. Strange #7
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Chris Bachalo, Tim Townsend, Al Vey, Mark Irwin, John Livesay, Victor Olazaba and Jaime Mendoza
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Sometimes it just feels good to hit them where they live.

Reading superhero comic books, underneath it all we know that caped crusaders and dark knight detectives are wish fulfillment and power fantasies, but oftentimes having heroes have to go out and save the day can get a little stale, a little too relaxed. But what happens when the hero himself is the target? What happens when someone stronger and more prepared suddenly comes knocking at their door?

When you’re Dr. Strange, that might mean not just your death along with everyone you’ve ever called a friend, but the death of magic itself.

Writer Jason Aaron taps into his greatest hits collection with Dr. Strange #7 as he delves into the history of the magic-slaying Empirikul, but the old adage still applies — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Remixing a bit of Superman lore with the origin story of the Godkiller from Aaron’s first run of The Mighty Thor, the first quarter of Dr. Strange #7 is surprisingly endearing as we watch an infant Empirikul get shot into mystical space away from the forces of Shuma-Gorath, and gives readers a compelling reason why this avatar of lethal science is suddenly gunning for the heads of Marvel’s premiere magic users. Yet Aaron doesn’t let his hero or his villain go so easily, as there’s a great debate about which side is more corrupt — the villain looking to “save” Earth from its potentially malevolent magic, or the hero who has more than his fair share of skeletons in his closet?

But ultimately, the real hook for Dr. Strange #7 is just how tense it is. Without his deep reserves of magic, Stephen Strange is just an ordinary man, with no defense against Empirikul and his vast legions. But what’s worse is that Strange is going to be the last one to go — watching sorcerers like Magik on the firing squad is a particularly eerie beat, and a great use of Marvel’s deep bench of wayward magic users. (In many ways, it reminds me a ton of Aaron’s run on Wolverine and the X-Men, where he also expanded mutantkind’s ranks in fun and eclectic ways.) Like every other magic trick in this book, Strange’s escape comes at great cost, but the twist is a sharp one, and gives readers plenty of reasons to latch onto the "Last Days of Magic."

Chris Bachalo, meanwhile, feels like the perfect fit for this kind of rough and otherworldly story. Empirikul’s homeworld, for example, has two great sets of designs competing against one another, with the maroon cloaks of Shuma-Gorath’s forces clashing nicely against the cool whites and greens of the doomed scientists. But once we make it to Earth, Bachalo’s gnarly style — aided by four inkers, whose inconsistencies actually wind up working to this chaotic story’s benefit — winds up being a great fit here. There are some great visuals here, like the curled and blackened trees that serve as chains for the Sorcerer Supreme, and the liberal use of white and gray in this issue shows how stark Strange’s situation is.

Back when X2: X-Men United was first released, one of the most thrilling sequences in the movie was the assault on the X-Mansion, with even the indomitable Wolverine being overwhelmed by superior forces. Seeing heroes on the run increases the stakes and the tension, and makes the fight personal — and makes those same characters have to dig in deep and deviate from their typical status quo to save the day. Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo have delivered a similarly harrowing sort of story in Dr. Strange #7 — but now that Strange has gotten his second chance, it’s going to be even more exciting to see how this sorcerer strikes back.

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