Best Shots Reviews: X-MEN - GOLD #1, BATMAN #20, RIVERDALE #1

"Batman #20" variant
Credit: Tim Sale (DC Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

X-Men: Gold #1
Written by Marc Guggenheim
Art by Ardian Syaf, Jay Leisten and Frank Martin
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

“The more things change, the more things stay the same.”

The latest refresher for the X-Men line has arrived, and writer Marc Guggenheim is committed to taking Marvel’s melodramatic mutants back to the basics with a new status quo that feels... well, a lot like an old one. But the X-Men aren’t the strangest heroes out there anymore, and in a world full of Inhumans, aliens and monsters, how is the metaphor at the heart of the title supposed to hold up? While Guggenheim tries to tackle that head-on, the results are admittedly a bit middling - thankfully, there’s still a lot to like about a “back to basics” approach to the X-Men, and Ardian Syaf is a big part of that.

Guggenheim’s first issue kind of has a greatest hits approach to realigning the book. Cast of recognizable characters? Check. School intact (for now)? Check. Some big superhero-ing? Check. Some intimate character moments between Peter and Kitty? Check. Softball game? Yep. And last but not least, acknowledgement of mutants as a metaphor for marginalized people? For better or worse, yes. In broad strokes, the metaphor generally stands up. It’s almost impossible to write an X-Men story without acknowledging that aspect of the book, but that’s hardly a unique take at this point. What are the X-Men supposed to be about in 2017? I don’t think that Guggenheim really knows. But he’s happy to let the X-Men live as a sort of Claremontian throwback until he figures it out.

The most important character in the history of the X-Men is Kitty Pryde. She’s one of the few Big Two characters that we’ve actually watched grow up, and she’s been our POV character for so many important stories. But now it’s time for her to take the reins, and leading the X-Men is absolutely a good look for her. Jay Edidin of Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men pointed out that Kitty is not the “nonthreatening fantasy girlfriend” character that so many make her out to be, and never has that been more true than it is here. Kitty commands her team with precision and incredible strategy. She stands strong in the face of adversity. But Guggenheim also reminds us that she’s been through so much and that underneath everything, she’s human.

Guggenheim does the right thing by making Kitty the anchor point for this book. She’s the heart, and it allows all the action that swirls around her to feel a lot more grounded. There aren’t really any big twists here. It’s just another day in the life of the X-Men. Wake up, save the city, be hated and feared, play softball, have life interrupted by the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. There’s something refreshing about the familiarity of it all.

Ardian Syaf’s art is hard to pin down. At times, it feels like a sketchy throwback to the X-Men artists of the '90s - and then at other times, there’s a little extra in the character rendering that completely blows that idea out of the water. On the whole, it works: Syaf’s page composition is really solid, the characters are really well-rendered and recognizable, and while there are a few odd shot angles here and there, on the whole, Syaf makes this an easy read. What Syaf is missing are those big standout moments. I don’t that’s entirely his fault - the big action sequence is resolved by Kitty phasing a falling building, which while very cool, lacks a really impactful visual to go with it, leaving readers with an awkward splash of some buildings.

X-Men: Gold has a lot going for it. It’s a bit of a nostalgia trip, but it feels like an X-Men book, and that's pretty huge considering the constant turmoil that the line has been in. Ardian Syaf is a utilitarian storyteller, but that’s effective when the book is still finding its bearings. Hopefully, Syaf will get the chance to really let loose but he'll also have to figure out if he can only keep trading in crosshatched nostalgic art or if he can more consistently deliver the higher quality renderings that we see intermittent throughout the book. Guggenheim has to decide what he’s doing to make this run his own. The problem with the X-line in recent years has been the lack of identity that the books have had. And that’s only been underlined by having the Inhumans co-opt the “trying to survive in a world that hates and fears us” narrative. This is a good start, but the creative team still has a long way to go.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #20
Written by Tom King
Art by David Finch, Danny Miki, Trevor Scott and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The curtain falls on the violent opera that was “I Am Bane” in this week’s Batman #20. Tom King’s sprawling and theatrical dance of death between the old enemies hasn’t exactly been the most accessible title, or even the most propulsive. That said, this issue gives the arc a brutally emotional final bow, strengthened by King’s deep well of character work. Though essentially an issue-long fight between Bane and Batman, King employs some insightful narration through the violence that cuts right to the heart and soul of Bruce Wayne. Paired with the bone-crushing artwork of David Finch, along with inkers Danny Miki and Trevor Scott, rounded out by the abyssal colors of Jordie Bellaire, this issue does satisfy as an ending to King’s mini-epic, but just not in the way you might expect.

On a purely physical level, Batman #20 is a harrowing read. David Finch really leans into the savagery of Bane, and expresses that on the page in some truly gut-wrenching displays of comic book violence. For example, after Bane gets Batman on the ground, he adds insult to Bruce’s injuries by repeatedly stomping on his back with serrated boots, as he shouts if the Bat knows who he is now. Finch, Miki, and Scott stage the scene with a hulking establishing shot of Bane in the background with Batman supplicate at his feet in the foreground. The trio then detail the stomps in a smaller diagonal row of panels showing a fraction of a moment from each assault, as Jordie Bellaire hammers home the blows with a hunter green base splattered with trails of deep red blood and the grimy white of Bane’s mask.

But while Batman #20 has a few explosive displays like the one detailed above, it wouldn’t be nearly as affective without Tom King’s lyrical scripting. As Bane and Batman beat one another into pulp, a tender narration follows the fight and seems to know a great deal about the inner workings of Bruce Wayne’s mind. In an insidiously clever turn, King reveals that the narration is Bruce’s mother calling him into the void of death, giving her insight on what her son has grown into. Obviously Bruce Wayne doesn’t die here, but the narration coupled with King’s outward growth of Bruce from the start of this arc, moving from vengeance to defense and to now finally altruism (which has always at Bruce's core) gives this issue a rich emotional payoff as well as several bloodily entertaining visual ones.

The current Batman title has been a tough one to champion due to its odd structure, but this chapter shows that payoffs sometimes are worth the wait. Tom King has marched to his own beat from the start of this run, and now with the debut of this newest issue, he’s earned back much of the goodwill some of the slower and more esoteric issues of this arc had sapped away. David Finch, Danny Miki, Scott Trevor, and Jordie Bellaire add to the richness of this issue by turning unblinking eyes to the violence and tragedy of these character’s lives but never allowing them to turn toward mindless comic book action and bloodletting. Through this arc, we got to know Bane through his turmoil, focus, and rage, but Batman #20 lets us know the Batman, the real Batman, and his world and title are so much the better for it.

Credit: Archie Comics

Riverdale #1
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Will Ewing and Michael Grazzi
Art by Joe Eisma and Andre Szymanowicz
Lettering by Janice Chaing and John Workman
Published by Archie Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

It's Hell Week for Archie Andrews and Betty Cooper, but there's something about Riverdale #1 that feels disappointingly tame compared to its off-the-wall TV counterpart. While artist Joe Eisma gives this comic's two stories a common artistic foundation, the material he's given by writers Will Ewing and Michael Grazzi (along with TV series mastermind Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) doesn't take the brash and shocking risks it needs to stand out.

In many ways, Riverdale #1 has felt like the dark mirror opposite of Archie Comics' more positive and character-driven line - but what's made the show so magnetizing to people is how big the show's choices have been. And that's where Riverdale the comic doesn't mesh well with either side of the spectrum - it doesn't have the charm of the regular Archie Comics, or the insanity of the show, as we follow twin stories of Archie and Betty being tormented by the football and cheerleading teams.

It doesn't help that the lead-in Archie story by Will Ewing doesn't quite have that core of characterization - Archie, determined to live up to Jason Blossom's legacy, winds up being hazed by the rest of the football team, but few of the trials he has to go through (streaking, overeating to make weight, swimming across a cold streak) feel particularly dramatic or tense. Ewing does play up Archie's heroic nature when he stands up for Moose, which is a highlight of the story, but for a tie-in to the television show, he doesn't explore any of Archie's copious flaws - his neediness, his flightiness, his bouts of cluelessness and self-righteousness - which make him such a surprisingly fun character to watch (or hate-watch, depending).

Michael Grazzi's secondary story, featuring Betty Cooper in the crosshairs of cheerleader queen bee Cheryl Blossom, fares better, thanks to the mean girl energy that has often powered the TV series. While there is some mirroring to the first Archie story, Grazzi has a bit more of a grasp on the characterization here, particularly when Betty is dared to don an "eye-patch"-sized cheerleading outfit, or to break into a rival school to steal an award. While Grazzi doesn't really tap into the craziness of the Cooper family outside of a quick (and funny) cameo, the Betty-Veronica-Cheryl triangle still has some decent stakes.

Artist Joe Eisma, meanwhile, shoulders the burden of both stories, and he's at his best when he takes a spin on the TV Archie's angsty scowl or Betty's perpetually raised brows. (It's also the most "Riverdale" this Riverdale series gets in terms of style and tone.) That said, he's occasionally hobbled by his script, which oftentimes calls for him to draw static establishing shots at the cost of the story's characterization and momentum. But Eisma's smaller human moments are the best, particularly Archie and Jughead's slack-jawed response to "#HotBetty" - it's these moments that actually surprise you, which is honestly Riverdale the TV show's stock in trade.

Ultimately, Archie Comics has found new relevance in recent years thanks to subverting and manipulating its wholesome brand, both positively and negatively. Unfortunately, the comic tie-in for Riverdale only scratches the surface of what makes the controversial TV show so guiltily engaging - for a #1 issue based on a primetime series, this comic book feels too low-key to really goose reader interest.

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