Best Shots Reviews: DOOM PATROL #2, DARTH VADER #25, More

Marvel August 2016 cover
Credit: Marvel Comics

Greetings, ‘Rama readers! Ready for your Monday reviews? Best Shots has grown by one today, as we welcome Jon Arvedon to our team! Let’s kick off today’s column with a look at DC’s Young Animal, as we check out the second installment of Doom Patrol

Credit: DC Comics

Doom Patrol #2
Written by Gerard Way
Art by Nick Derington and Tamra Bonvillain
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by DC Comics/Young Animal
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Gerard Way and Nick Derington continue to bring the band back together with their sophomore installment of Doom Patrol — and while their newborn world might be eccentric and chaotic, the inhabitants therein wind up being as personable and charming as it gets.

While the first issue of Doom Patrol was a kaleidoscopic introduction, criss-crossing between loopy EMT Casey Brinke, the philosophies of gyros, and the mystery of Robotman, things come (marginally) closer to Earth this week, and it’s that human touch that gives Doom Patrol #2 some meaning beyond Way’s trademark cadence and imagery. Opening with an exciting sequence in a jet plane as pilot Larry Trainor has a spooky encounter with cosmic radiation, Way’s focus on characters like Robotman and the Negative Man gives Doom Patrol a strong and familiar foundation — whereas Casey is a blank slate, these longtime Doom Patrollers are more of a remix, and a welcome one at that. Robotman, for example, already feels like the heart and soul of this book, as a cranky brawler who tells some extradimensional foes that “I hope you creeps are hungry because you’re going to be eating a lot of my s—t.” The Negative Man, meanwhile, has a deeper twist beyond his radioactivity — feeding off the negative emotions of others makes Larry Trainor suddenly a far more impish and unpredictable character, one with loads of untapped potential.

By adding these characters to the enigma of Casey Brinke — as well as two other great guest appearances from elsewhere in the Vertigo catalog — Way gives his readers a bit more solid ground to gain their bearings, which makes it much easier to appreciate his whimsical pacing and imagery. It’s no secret that Way has been a longtime devotee of Grant Morrison’s, and Morrison’s voice is a critical part of Doom Patrol’s DNA, both past and present — there isn’t so much of a focus on a linear story, as much as breaking down a number of stories and patching them together, mosaic-style. Given Way’s background as a musician, this use of rhythm might just be second nature — this series is about as far from naturalistic as it gets, but there’s something almost lyrical when a car radio asks Casey, “Do you ever wonder if you’ve already gotten to where you are going?”

While Way might get the lion’s share of the accolades for this venture, you’d be sorely mistaken — artist Nick Derington feels like a surrealist cousin of Cameron Stewart, with some wonderfully expressive characters combined with some beautifully detailed settings. The level of detail and deliberation to Derington’s work makes me flabbergasted that he wasn’t a household name before this book — but at the same time, Doom Patrol feels like such a fitting title for Derington to do some career-making work. In many ways, his take on Robotman reminds me a lot of Ben Grimm from the Fantastic Four, particularly the way his jaw and brow are so prominent amongst his orange frame. But that said, Ben Grimm’s navy blue briefs have got nothing on Cliff’s padded leather jacket, giving the character an awesome sense of personality. Even the Negative Man, an inhuman creature made out of inky tendrils and unsettling geometry, winds up being the perfect logical conclusion to what had been a fairly uncomplicated design initially. Colorist Tamra Bonvillain also deserves some special praise here, with a color palette that is both energetic yet just slightly off-kilter, always showing that there’s something not quite right doing on in the Doom Patrol’s world.

That’s not to say, of course, that Doom Patrol won’t be an acquired taste — it will be. There are some who like their comics uncomplicated and action-packed, and for those people, the oblique and roundabout way this series has launched will make this book far from a good fit. But for those of us who like the performative aspect of our comics — seeing the different variations of style and execution beyond simple plot-setting — will find something unique and engaging about Doom Patrol #2. With the return of two characters that have long been missing in action, this is a book that’s well worth your time.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Darth Vader #25
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Salvador Larocca, Edgar Delgado, Max Fiumara and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Now the series is over, it’s easy to see where Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca’s Darth Vader was going to end. It’s not really a spoiler to say that a story that began after the destruction of the original Death Star was leading toward the point where Vader would be standing on the command deck of a Star Destroyer, using the rich resources of the Empire to find the rebel named Luke Skywalker. But this story hasn't been about the second-most-powerful man in the galaxy. It’s been about how he gets to be the leader that’s more than just his Emperor’s right-hand man. Gillen and Larroca’s story has been about Darth Vader’s own rebellion and the ways it cemented his place in the Empire.

Darth Vader #25 neatly wraps up a number of loose ends that Vader has left in his wake. Most of his rivals within the Empire have been dealt with but the Emperor has Dr. Aphra in his clutches and only she knows the depths of Vader’s obsession with Luke Skywalker. She has been the humanity in Gillen and Larroca’s story; equal parts sociopath and survivor. Aphra and the menagerie of droids and bounty hunters around her have been the secret army that Vader has assembled to fight the Emperor if necessary. She knows just how valuable she is to both the Emperor and Darth Vader and she’s willing to use that knowledge to her benefit. In many ways, she’s been the perfect companion and ally for Vader; both of their loyalty only goes so far compared to their own wants and desires.

Vader isn’t a kind man. “He’s Darth Vader,” Aphra tells one of her droids. “He was never going to be kind.” Gillen’s Vader has been a rich synthesis of the Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader that we’ve known from the movies. Not a hero and not a villain, Vader’s story is about the eternal conflict between the light and the dark in his soul. This concept of his characters not being wholly good or wholly evil runs through a lot of Gillen’s writing, whether it’s Loki in Journey Into Mystery or any of the gods from The Wicked + The Divine. Vader fights for himself and if that means that he needs the full weight of the Empire behind him to find his son, then he’ll fight to retain that mighty force. It was never about loyalty or ideologies but it was about power.

Larroca’s artwork captures this eternal conflict in Vader the same way that the movies have to; through lighting and through body language. A backup story drawn by Max Fiumara returns to an early event from the series where Vader massacred a group of Tusken Raiders. In this story, we see distorted visions and effigies of Vader where Fumiara, while still fairly loyal to the visuals, artistically bends and twists his figures for drama. There’s next to none of that in Larroca’s artwork as his steady line does is best to capture the reality of the big screen. His dark and stoic Vader shows emotions through a tilt of the head or the ways that the shadows fall across his helmet. Larroca’s precision makes his Darth Vader a truly frightening character because he is difficult to visually read even as you can feel anger and rage seething underneath his ebony armor.

Darth Vader #25 concludes Vader’s own version of Game of Thrones, where Vader has learned about the cost of power and the even higher price of keeping it. His Machiavellian maneuvers throughout the past 24 issues lead to this final issue and confrontation with the Emperor, himself no stranger to this game. And really, knowing that this series takes place between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the fate of Vader wasn’t really in question. It was just going to be how much more of Anakin Skywalker’s soul he was going to need to sacrifice to make his next grand cinematic gesture. For as iconic of a villain that Darth Vader has been since 1977, Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca show us that there is far more to the bad guys than their quests for evil and domination.

Credit: DC Comics

Detective Comics #942
Written by Steve Orlando and James Tynion IV
Art by Andy MacDonald and John Rauch
Lettering by Marilyn Patrizio
Review by Jon Arvedon
Published by DC Comics
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

DC Rebirth was an event that, among other things, led to some incredible new story arcs, such as the ones we saw from Batman, Nightwing, and Detective Comics. As the first arcs wrapped up, the powers that be at DC decided to call upon writer Steve Orlando to script Rebirth’s first major crossover event. Spanning through the pages of the aforementioned titles, my initial skepticism about Night of the Monster Men was that after such stellar story arcs, the momentum would be stunted by a crossover event that separated the characters from the worlds that were being created within their respective titles. However, after reading Detective Comics #942, it’s clear this was not the case.

Although Orlando scripted the event, the stories within each individual issue of the crossover were collaborations between him and the respective writers of the core titles. With James Tynion IV’s finger in the pot, the strong team dynamic he developed in the previous arc of Detective Comics is still able to shine in this issue. In the absence of Tim Drake’s Red Robin, Nightwing feels like a natural fit for the team, serving as somewhat of a counterweight to the stoic Dark Knight, but still acting as a detective in his own right.

The highlight of this issue isn’t the epic battle with the amalgam of Hugo Strange’s Monster Men, but rather the battle between Batman and Strange himself. The best Batman villains are the ones that challenge the Caped Crusader, not physically, but morally and psychologically. The fact that Hugo Strange dons a Batsuit of his own, rigged to explode should Batman strike a blow, demonstrates how methodical and calculating he truly is. Attacking Batman’s psyche and using his morals against him is something we’ve seen before, yet Orlando and Tynion’s execution feels fresh, given the context of this narrative. Ever the resourceful hero, Batman manages to take down Strange in a manner that is truly befitting of the World’s Greatest Detective. This is also a moment that highlights Clayface’s unique position on the team, though based on what we know about Batman, you can imagine he still has a few tricks tucked away in his utility belt.

In addition to Orlando and Tynion, Andy MacDonald’s art serves as a gritty visual representation of the story at hand. His sharp style tends to result in the sacrifice of some of the finer details in smaller panels, but he manages to play to his strengths for the majority of the book. Right off the bat (no pun intended), MacDonald hits hard with a phenomenal double-page spread of the Monster Man laying waste to the city, showcasing the epic proportions of the threat that faces our heroes, and adding to the ongoing list of reasons why no one should live in Gotham. The depiction of the creature is grotesque and stomach-turning, which is expertly embellished by John Rauch’s palette selection of deep reds, pinks and purples.

MacDonald’s ability to construct stunning compositions isn’t just limited to his spreads and splash pages. The panel layouts are perfectly balanced, each with clear focal points, and they allow you to flow effortlessly through the gory, yet gorgeous sequential art. The page where Batwoman, Nightwing, Spoiler and Orphan sign into their respective Watchtower stations adds a pleasant and timely dose of nostalgia to the story, evoking memories of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers gearing up in their Zords to take down the Kaiju-of-the-week.

Throughout this issue, particularly in the closing pages, Orlando seamlessly wraps up the crossover, clearly delineating its ties to previous events within the Bat-family books, while simultaneously planting the seeds for the upcoming arcs of both Batman and Detective Comics. The end result is a book that skillfully balances hard-hitting action sequences, dynamic character beats, and of course, your quintessential Batman moments. Rounded out by the perfect correlation between the script and MacDonald and Rauch’s imagery, this was a solid outing by the entire creative team, and a milestone that marks the successful completion of DC’s first post-"Rebirth" event.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Power Man and Iron Fist #9
Written by David F. Walker
Art by Sanford Greene, Flaviano and John Rauch
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Review by Jon Arvedon
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Power Man and Iron Fist #9, written by David F. Walker, with art by Sanford Greene and Flaviano, and colors by John Rauch, is one of the latest titles to tie into Marvel’s Civil War II event. When the series first kicked off this past February, it was a refreshing and nostalgic take on the Heroes for Hire. Reminiscent of Danny and Luke’s classic late 1970s adventures, the series seemed to occupy its own unique corner of the Marvel Universe. Getting all hands on-deck by tying a lower-tier title into Civil War II makes sense from an sales perspective, but this ultimately leads to the sacrifice of the fun, self-contained nature of the series thus far.

Although the series is being shoehorned into Marvel’s big summer event, it isn’t the only problem I have with this issue of Power Man and Iron Fist. As we bear witness to a massive brawl between heroes, villains and inmates, it felt like there was simply way too much going on throughout this book. While it’s easy to enjoy the wild, action-packed nature of the story, one can just as easily find themselves quickly feeling overwhelmed. With so many characters and so much jumping around, it was difficult to give full appreciation to any of the individual plot points.

Characterization and dialogue were also issues I struggled with while working my way through this story. As I just mentioned, there was a lot of jumping around in this story, which came at the expense of character development. Without ever getting a chance to spend a discernible amount of time with any of the characters, no one left the issue more fleshed out than they were at the start. The one exception that comes to mind is the exchange between Luke and Danny at the conclusion of the book, which teases some conflicting morals between the duo, but it would have been great to see this expanded beyond a single page. As far as dialogue, there were a number of lines that read as clunky or awkward, like Mockingbird asking Songbird if she’s trying to body-shame her. Dialogue that doesn’t read like actual speech can be an easy way to take readers out of a story, and a lot of the character exchanges failed to resonate as real conversation. Also, for the love of Sweet Christmas, Luke Cage spouting out “Fiddle Faddle” was funny in Issue #1, but having seen the phrase pop up in the eight subsequent issues, it’s starting to feel a bit forced.

Sometimes, shaky writing can be given a pass when it’s accompanied by outstanding visuals. Sanford Greene’s art pairs perfectly with this title, as does Flaviano’s, but the two of them together makes for some blatant and odd transitions that, once again, take me out of the story. The stylistic changes from one page to the next can be quite jarring at times, with Greene’s thin, crisp line work in juxtaposition with Flaviano’s heavy-handed, thick inks. While the artists do compose some exemplary panel layouts, several of them housed some questionable artistic decisions. It’s worth noting that Deathlok, Mockingbird, Songbird and Cletus “Disco Devil” Evans are all facing away from the reader upon their respective introductions. Others, such as Black Mariah, fail to be introduced at all, a strange choice considering other recurring characters, including Danny and Luke, receive introductory text. Thankfully, colorist John Rauch manages to alleviate some of these gripes, thanks to his aesthetically pleasing palette selection. The combination of warm, bright, yet slightly muted hues takes you right back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, when the Heroes for Hire were in their hay day. This is contrasted nicely by the cooler pinks and blues in the panels featuring Senor Magico. For a character I could do without, Rauch certainly makes his sequences pop.

The next issue of Power Man and Iron Fist will be the start of a new arc. Based on the solicitation, it seems as though Civil War II will be in the rearview for Danny and Luke, so perhaps we’ll see more of the buddy cop-style series we were presented with in February. In any case, unless you’re a completist, I think it’s safe to pass on this particular issue. The lack of character development, clashes between art and script, and overall business of the story result in a book that doesn’t do much to progress the series as a whole.

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