Best Shots Reviews: NIGHTHAWK #1, SUPERMAN #52, More

"Nighthawk #1" preview
Credit: Marvel Comics

Everyone may have Rebirth and Captain America on the brain, but this week saw the release of a whole host of major titles from both Marvel and DC. As usual, the Best Shots team is on point, ready to tackle the biggest releases of the week, including the end of the
"New 52" Superman, and Doctor Strange's "Last Days of Magic". We'll kick things off with a look at Nighthawk #1, a new series launching this week from Marvel Comics.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nighthawk #1
Written by David F. Walker
Art by Ramon Villalobos and Tamra Bonvillain
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

David F. Walker and Ramon Villalobos delve into the tense and violent streets of Chicago in Nighthawk #1, a blood-soaked solo debut for the former Squadron Supreme member that struggles to find a voice for itself. Although a vicious sense of humor and solid artwork aid this creative team's opening salvo, Walker plays it safe with the main plot, supplying an uninteresting main villain and a serious lack of a unique selling point for the title character.

David F. Walker's script is filled with undesirables. Between Nighthawk's wrath and new villain The Revelator, Walker racks up a sizable body count, with everyone from white supremacists to slumlords to judges in the firing line. Nighthawk himself speaks little, but the dialogue that is here attests to a well realized if one-note character. From the boilerplate quips as he dispatches his foes to his bitter manner when dealing with an incompetent police force and a crooked real estate developer hungry for his cash, Raymond Kane is the archetypal battle-hardened antihero — for better and worse.

Walker is aware enough of the hypocrisy behind the bloodthirsty Nighthawk and all he fights against, although that doesn't stop him from happily indulging in pages upon pages of cracked skulls and broken limbs. It's an interesting concept, a man driven mad by the violence he feels compelled to inflict, but Walker doesn't really tackle it with any focus. In terms of a supporting cast, Nighthawk's “Oracle” comes in the form of Tilda Johnson, who acts as a voice of reason for the rampaging vigilante, but even then she wishes for Nighthawk to merely paralyze their foes instead of incinerating them outright. Away from the anti-heroism of the series' title character, Walker's wisecracking cops provide ample amounts of gallows humor. Upon arrival at the scene, Detective Burrel remarks, “This is something out of a David Fincher movie.” This harsh contrast between witty banter and messy crime scenes sum up Nighthawk's casual approach to horrific violence, and marks the strongest point of the issue.

Although Villalobos' pages are well laid-out, his sense of proportion often becomes squashed under the strain of Walker's fight sequences, even if his characters' poses are dynamic and full of life. Likewise, his mostly realistic faces loudly convey expression, even if they slide off-model a little too often. Despite these flaws, Villalobos' action sequences carry a real punch. Noses crack awkwardly amidst tidal waves of blood, whilst wide-eyed onlookers run for cover. Design-wise, Nighthawk's slinky stealth-suit is functional and appealing, with bright orange bird eyes that pierce through the dark night, although the spaghetti-haired, blank-masked appearance of the Revelator elicits mockery instead of the intended fear. Finishing the issue's look, Tamra Bonvillain's perfectly executed color palette of neon pink and orange atop a night of dark blue and black fits Nighthawk's brooding yet lurid nature, elevating scenes that would otherwise look generic with an imaginative splash of color.

Nighthawk's origin as a Batman analogue is well-known, but this reviewer wonders about the character's value in his own sphere. If you completely divorce Nighthawk #1 from the character's history, this is a painfully generic street-level hero book. There's definitely something very timely about the book's focus on anger at the establishment, especially when it comes to the evils of dodgy rented property, but the sadistic serial killer story at the issue's core is something we've seen a thousand times elsewhere, and better to boot. This is one for the real Nighthawk fans only.

Credit: DC Comics

Superman #52
Written by Peter J. Tomasi
Art by Mikel Janin, Miguel Sepulveda and Jeromy Cox
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Peter J. Tomasi was given the unenviable task of wrapping up five years of mostly forgettable Superman stories in an arc that is mostly just more of the same. It’s hard not to see “The Final Days of Superman” as a microcosm of the problems that DC has had with the character since the dawn of the New 52: It’s overly long and drawn-out, the stakes are low, and try as they might, the creative team failed at getting readers to care about the characters involved. Mikel Janin joins Tomasi for the big finale and while his character work is strong, the slick coloring and computer effects give the book a really weird overall feel. There’s been something off about the Man of Steel since the onset of the New 52, and while this is a valiant attempt at fixing it, it’s an entirely awkward affair.

Tomasi gives us the knock-down, drag-out fight that will decide who is the real Superman once and for all in this issue, and that’s honestly what takes up most of the page count. I think Tomasi is one of the better writers to be employed by DC during the New 52, but some books are beyond saving. New 52 Superman has gone so far off the rails that every time a new writer gets a hold of him, he becomes unrecognizable from the last iteration. Tomasi is tasked with bringing pre-New 52 Superman into the fold and ending New 52 Superman’s story, and while he manages to do both, considering that we know what’s coming, the ending falls flat. Pre-New 52 Superman swoops in to save the day at the last minute, in much the same way that DC is hoping Rebirth will save them, but New 52 Superman’s sacrifice feels hollow. New 52 Superman doesn’t even get his own big final moment. It’s usurped by another character. It’s a fitting end for a character that always felt like an also-ran in this version of the DCU.

For as stilted and heavy-handed as Tomasi’s dialogue and plotting gets, Mikel Janin doesn’t do him any favors. His character renderings are generally good but contrast heavily against Jeromy Cox’s unnatural coloring and computer effects that are present in the background. Now, I’m not advocating returning to CMYK or anything. Technology has allowed for so many great advances in art, but there is a limit. When artists start replacing backgrounds entirely with effects, there is a problem. The figures end up looking out of place, like a they were cut out and pasted over something else rather than the art feeling like a fluid, continuous piece. Janin does deliver on a few of the book’s big moments though even if those moments feel forced. His layouts are fine for the most part, as he opts to go big with lots of splashes and large panels to try give us a sense of scale of the battle. But the art plays just like the writing: it’s a means to an end.

This finale will be overshadowed by the dawn of Rebirth, and this version of Superman is unlikely to be fondly remembered. The New 52 was an interesting experiment. It showed us how strong concepts like Batman can be while also showing us how easy it is to miss the mark with characters that are supposed to be constants in their universe. Tomasi and Janin try their damnedest to make this issue something memorable, but it’s not enough. The reactions of the other heroes feels disingenuous. This is a Superman that didn’t make a lasting impact on readers or his world of story. That’s a glaring mistake, and one that I hope DC can fix moving forward.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Doctor Strange #8 
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Chris Bachalo, Tim Townsend, Al Vey, Mark Irwin, John Livesay, Victor Olazaba, Antonio Fabela and Java Tartaglia
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The Last Days of Magic may be upon us, with sorcerers succumbing and wizards wilting against the robotic hordes of the Emprikul — but leave it Doctor Strange to have a few more tricks up his sleeve. With their eighth chapter, Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo deliver some of their best superhero work since their last team-up in Wolverine and the X-Men, as a desperate Strange proves to be a hero who can generate more than enough tension and inventiveness.

With the Emprikul having drained Earth of its magical reserves, Stephen Strange is no longer the all-powerful Sorcerer Supreme — instead, Aaron brings this once-lofty hero back down to Earth, cleverly recasting him as “Archaeologist of the Impossible,” tracking down any and all mystical trinkets that can help his ragtag band of spellcasters bring the fight back to their sci-fi-powered pursuers. Aaron leans in nicely to this Indiana Jones-esque premise, with Stephen barely navigating a treacherous cave filled with albino alligators and poisonous snakes with only his wits to guide him. Well, his wits and a collection of glitchy magical items that serve to make this story even more tense — after all, what’s scarier than knowing your escape route might cut out at any time?

But this sort of premise also gets to show off how inventive Aaron is, reminding me of the same sort of imagination that Rick Remender infused in stories such as his Ghost Rider run. This isn’t a particularly stuffy or clinical take on Doctor Strange, but instead takes this typically aloof character and throws him into the grimy end of the pool, with hellfire shotguns and magic-eating slugs filling in for the Eye of Agamotto or the Cloak of Levitation. While this series’ promotional images featuring Stephen Strange with an axe initially felt off-putting, given the character’s desperate situation today, giving him a bow and arrow (and watching him largely fail to use it) makes perfect sense, as does pairing him with Marvel’s various occult characters like Scarlet Witch, Talisman and Mahatma Doom.

The art here also works spectacularly, with Chris Bachalo and his army of inkers and colorists adding a nice layer of scratchy shadows to make Strange’s struggle seem all the more harrowing. This series has played very well to Bachalo’s strengths in terms of designing monsters, items and exotic locales, including laser-firing cybernetic attack dogs or the eerie, cyclopean Helmet of Razadazar, which Stephen is forced to don to escape a tight situation. There’s a lot of detail in these panels, ranging from riches to rubble, but Bachalo is able to pack in his pages nicely so that the action can continue to flow dynamically. This issue is also a masterful use of color to really establish the otherworldliness and danger of the caves, with molten oranges radiating nicely against cool purples, or a picturesque magenta skyline showing off a tropical mountain pass.

One of the problems that has faced Doctor Strange in the past is that as a character, he’s often been seen as above it all, with his struggles and challenges sometimes being a bit too heady, a bit too high-concept for readers to fully connect or become invested in. But Aaron and Bachalo have made Strange’s problems personal, with an overwhelming threat gunning for him and everyone he’s ever known. With the action being this frenetic, this fantastic and this fun, knocking the Sorcerer Supreme down a peg might very well have been the best thing that ever happened to him.

Credit: DC Comics

Grayson #20
Written by Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly
Art by Roge Antonio and Jeromy Cox
Letters by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

And so we have reached the center of the spiral in Grayson #20. Beginning as a riff on the high flying hijinks of the spy genre and ending as a trippy love letter to the personality and legacy of the first “son” of the Bat, Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly, along with the smooth pencils of Roge Antonio and the psychedelic colors of Jeromy Cox, tie up all the loose ends in Dick’s war against Doctor Daedalus in a fast-paced and moving finale. As Leviathan is poised to plunge the world into eternal war, Dick must choose between Helena Bertinelli or his own sanity as he offers up himself as Daedalus’ vessel in her stead. What follows is a battle fought on the field of the mind as well as an emotional final chapter in this era of Dick Grayson’s life, one that may have started shakily, but never forgot who Grayson was at the very heart of his being.

It has all been leading to this moment: Dick Grayson versus Otto Netz for the fate of the entire world. Though it feels a bit truncated given the impending Rebirth, writers Lanzing and Kelly still do their best to make Grayson #20 feel like a definitive end for the once divisive solo title. Confining most of the action to the battle for Helena’s mind and soul, Lanzing and Kelly fully commit to the weirdness that has bubbled to the top of the title as of late, making Dick and Otto’s final fight not one fought with fists, but with their raw ids. In an attempt to release Helena from her personal hell, Grayson offers himself up to Daedalus, thus luring the villain into his mind — a mind trained by the greatest crimefighter the world has ever known.

Rendered in widescreen kinetic panels and given an extra bit of stylish flair thanks to the spiraling backgrounds by penciler Roge Antonio, and drenched in rich reds, blacks, and yellows by colorist Jeromy Cox, this fight is equal parts rousing and truly insane as all the aspects of Grayson’s personality, Robin, Nightwing, the Court of Owl’s pawn, and his grinning version of Batman, appear to battle Daedalus’ monstrously arachnid mind-form. Though the life and times of Dick Grayson as a spy ran its course in Grayson, it is nice to see both the writers and the art team ending the series on what worked instead of attempting to close the loop back into a spy story. Grayson was always at its best when it was just a bit insane, and the creative team makes sure to end it that way.

After Leviathan is put down, this finale downshifts into post-script mode, and after the dizzying craziness, it is hard to not feel jarred by the shift in tone. After a single melancholy page detailing where stand out side character Tiger King has ended up, nowhere near enough for such a rich foil in my opinion, Lanzing and Kelly even out with a poignant goodbye for Grayson and Helena. Rendered in tight, intimate panels by Antonio in order to truly sell the emotion and put even more into focus by the pale blue sky and stark white filling the backgrounds thanks to Cox, Helena and Dick share a long overdue moment of clarity with each other and their own journeys as heroes.

Helena’s realization coming in the form of her admitting that she has been running from her family name for too long, and for Dick, he finally understands that he needed Nightwing as much as Gotham did — not to mention DC readers as a whole. The scene, to me, is a thesis statement for Grayson as a whole. That through all the double-crosses, flirtations, and theatrics, Dick Grayson was and will always will be a hero and that’s what makes him such a compelling character, no matter what costume he wears. Though Grayson #20 juggles two vastly different tones, it kept its lead firmly in character until the bitter end.

As a longtime Nightwing fan, I balked at the announcement of Grayson. Seeing Dick trade in his wings for a drab uniform and a gun rubbed me the wrong way. But the story that Tim Seeley, Tom King, and Mikal Janin told ended up being much more entertaining and much more narratively rich than I gave it credit for, adding up to more than just a new costume, co-stars, and setting. Now with Grayson #20, Jackson Lanzing, Collin Kelly, Roge Antonio and Jeromy Cox deliver a finale that not only stayed true to the spirit of the title that Seeley, King, and Janin started, but also stayed true to Dick Grayson himself.

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