Best Shots Reviews: NICK FURY #2, BATMAN #23, LUKE CAGE #1, GENERATION X #1

Batman #23
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Nick Fury #2
Written by James Robinson
Art by ACO, Hugo Petrus, and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

After a superb debut, it was on Nick Fury #2 to continue the momentum. Fortunately for readers, the issue is another resounding success, as writer James Robinson and artists ACO, Hugo Petrus, and Rachelle Rosenberg take this psychedelic spy story and shoot for the moon. Literally.

The premise to Robinson’s script here is that Nick Fury must single-handedly stop a Yakuza-run lunar base from attacking the Earth with a beam that would disrupt the plate tectonics of the planet. It’s absurd, but Robinson plays it straight without falling into the trap of self-seriousness. Robinson’s take on Fury has the hero dripping in cool, with a collected confidence that is only matched by his ability.

As with the previous issue, there isn’t much in the way of character development for Nick Fury. However, there are subtle beats - the way Fury reacts to being called “Junior,” a slow building rivalry with Hydra agent Frankie Noble - that suggest a larger character arc is in store. For now though, Nick Fury seems to be enjoying its exploration of the ludicrous, and with the quality of the work here, that enthusiasm proves to be contagious.

Like its preceding installment, Nick Fury #2 is an artistic tour de force. ACO’s layouts here are almost maddeningly impressive in the way that they simultaneously appear confusing yet are easy to follow. It’s a trippy effect, aided by letterer Travis Lanham’s word balloon placement that guides the reader through. It isn’t just ACO’s layouts that are a success, however, as his lineart here is superb. There’s a lot of design elements at play, from Nick Fury’s spacesuit, to samurai exosuits, to spacedust, and ACO nails all of them. There’s never really a question as to why something exists because each element feels fully realized.

Rachelle Rosenberg’s colors might steal the show from ACO this issue. Her color choices here are truly amazing, conveying a sense of high-octane fun, while never confusing the reader as to just what they’re looking at. Yes, the Moon’s starry sky is given blues and greens one might expect from the Caribbean Sea, but it’s still an alien environment that is both beautiful and deadly. Pinks, oranges, and greens are the dominant colors of the issue, perhaps nowhere more evident than Nick Fury’s spacesuit, which is so stylish with its audacious use of orange that the character needs to have it in Avengers: Infinity War.

Inker Hugo Petrus may be the unsung hero of the creative team, keeping ACO’s work from losing shape in Rosenberg’s colors. With so many pieces in play, Petrus does a fantastic job ensuring that everything is properly emphasized. This helps with everything from the big action sequences to the little beats where Nick Fury’s removed helmet floats towards the reader thanks to the Moon’s lesser gravity. Without Petrus’ inking, some of these moments may have caused confusion, especially in the smaller panels.

After a scintillating debut, Nick Fury comes through again with its second outing. But while that first issue’s narrative may have been anchored in a traditional spy narrative, writer James Robinson brings the story into the realm of the truly weird in this issue. Artists ACO, Hugo Petrus, and Rachelle Rosenberg continue to display their utter mastery here, the strength of their work making Nick Fury #2 an absolute must-read.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #23
Written by Tom King
Art by Mitch Gerads
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

One of Vertigo’s most critically acclaimed teams reunites in a muggy, meditative murder mystery in Batman #23. Tom King and Mitch Gerads, creators of the magnetically entertaining Sheriff of Babylon, take the same detail-oriented and cinematic style and apply it carefully to the mean streets of Gotham. King and Gerads inject a purposeful darkness and poetry in the form of Swamp Thing, who acts as a vine-covered foil for Batman in a pitch-black story that would have done Bernie Wrightson very, very proud.

A man is murdered in Gotham City and, from the looks of things, it is just another night in the city of the Bat. But early on, King and Gerads instill a creepy sense of unfamiliarity in the reader. The issue’s opening, molded into a tight nine-panel grid, shows a destitute man sitting in a chair, singing an innocent song. Soon the scene turns violent and the man is shot twice in the head and left for dead. But just the way the pair stage this scene shows power in restraint, something Sheriff of Babylon does extremely well. Colored in a fuzzy greyscale and broken up by sketchy credit panels designed to look like old flimsy film stock cels, the opening tells us this isn’t going to be just another murder - especially when Batman and Commissioner Gordon are suddenly joined at the crime scene by an even more aloof than usual Swamp Thing. It is here where the issue goes from a run-of-the-mill team up to a deeply emotional character piece that doesn’t shy away from the more troubling aspects of the Warrior King of the Green.

Often Batman is defined by his team-ups, and that can usually work to his advantage. But the World’s Finest this is not, and Tom King doesn’t try to dance around that fact. This issue has more than a few truly fun moments, such as the Easter egg-filled double-page splash of Bruce and Alec taking tea (while Alfred constantly cleans up after their mossy guest) to Batman and Swamp Thing’s interrogation of Kite Man (hell yeah!). These scenes are particular stand-outs thanks to King’s slightly off-kilter dialogue and Gerads’ attention to visual forward momentum, especially in the Kite Man scene, which cuts very well between the falling Batman and his prey, rendered in incremental “camera” zoom-ins, and the patently waiting Swamp Thing, who is drawn as almost peaceful as he deliberately takes his time building the vine trap that will catch the plummeting pair.

Visually, Batman #23 is a marvel, but it is King’s unrepentant and classically-inspired take on Swamp Thing that steals this issue and provides a harsh moral opposite for Batman, as we learn the victim was Alec Holland’s absentee father, giving this murder instant personal stakes. But King pushes it further, lulling the reader into complicity as Batman and Swamp Thing pound the pavement to find his father’s killer. Of course they do, but instead of it being a standard comic book “arrest,” Swamp Thing brutally and effortlessly kills the assassin, singing the song his father sang in the opening in broken, haunting couplets given Halloween orange life by letterer Clayton Cowles. The real reason why is too good to spoil here, but trust me, fans of the classic Vertigo-era Swamp Thing will not be disappointed by Alec’s swift and arguably justifiable death sentence that is given a viridian and horrifying look by Gerads, who twists vines through the assassin’s head and sprouts vibrant, thriving lilies through his eyes.

Dark in all the best ways and willing to let certain heroes be scary again, Batman #23 is a triumph that could have been a world-class team-up flop. Tom King and Mitch Gerads took what worked from their working relationship and translated it perfectly into the main line of DC Comics and in doing so, delivered what could be one of the better team-ups Batman has been involved with. You don’t often associate one-off hero pairings with haunting visuals and uncompromising character moments, but after Batman #23, you just might.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Luke Cage #1
Written by David Walker
Art by Nelson Blake II and Marcio Menyz
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Writer David Walker continues the original Hero for Hire’s story in a new Luke Cage solo series. Joined by artists Nelson Blake II and Marcio Menyz, Walker looks to explore what happens to the bulletproof Harlemite when he is put into an unfamiliar situation and doesn’t have his usual resources. Luke Cage #1 delivers on that premise, providing readers with new insights into Luke’s character.

David Walker’s previous experience with the character in the most recent Power Man & Iron Fist series shows here, and fans will appreciate the fact that the issue feels like Luke Cage’s story through and through. But whereas Walker’s previous title operated as a tribute to the pulpy ‘70s stories, Luke Cage #1 is a different flavor, as Luke Cage travels to Louisiana due to the death of Dr. Noah Burstein, the man whose experiments gave Luke his unbreakable skin. Whereas one might expect Luke Cage to resent the doctor for using him as a guinea pig, Walker shows that Luke is actually affected by the loss of Burstein, recognizing that it was the experimentation that gave Luke the ability to be as effective a hero as he is. It’s an interesting choice that continues to echo throughout the issue.

Though perhaps not the most eye-catching style, Nelson Blake II’s naturalistic artwork really helps with some of the tone shifts in the book. The issue starts with Luke in his element, helping the little people with smaller problems that other heroes ignore. However, as the issue progresses, he begins to find himself in over his head, as he tackles some bad guys that will give even him a run for his money. Blake’s artwork reflects that change, starting with very naturalistic imagery (the shadows of the trees on the townhouses) and moving slowly into heightened drama. Color artist Marcio Menyz does a fantastic job subtly informing the tone changes with the use of the “lighting” in a scene – when Luke Cage and Dr. Lenore Mornay are riding in a car and the blooming light of a sunset hits them, one immediately gets the sense that something is about to go wrong.

Blake also displays subtle character work, capturing Luke Cage’s imposing physicality, but also his warmth and vulnerability. This is especially true when Luke meets a family whose son was saved by Dr. Burstein’s later experimentations. Blake has Cage leaning forward, massive shoulders collapsed inward that instantly conveys a man in pain. And when the issue calls for action, Blake steps up to the plate.

Luke Cage #1 isn’t preoccupied with being an action-heavy book, but instead is far more interested in conveying to readers just why Luke Cage is in New Orleans and what the direction of the series will be. But the little taste readers get here is fantastic. From a one-page sequence in which Luke fights his way down a staircase, to the way Luke Cage knocks out a goon with a super-powered flick of his finger, everything flows and provides not only a sense of Luke Cage’s power, but also his sense of humor. And when the action heats up toward the end of the issue, Blake conveys the sense of vulnerability when some of that power and humor is taken away.

While otherwise a solid issue, Luke Cage #1 is not without a minor flaw. At times, letterer Joe Sabino’s balloons feel a bit crowded and shrunken down. It may just be a sign of the change in media, as the digital copy of the issue reads fine since each panel expands to fill the screen, but the tight space of the words in the word balloons made some panels harder to read in print.

Font size aside, Luke Cage #1 is an entertaining debut for a hero that’s had a mixed bag of solo efforts. Writer David Walker uses his experience with Luke Cage to exciting results, first lulling readers into a sense of familiarity and then quickly transitioning to something new for the character. The artwork by Nelson Blake II and Marcio Menyz gives the book the sense of personal drama that it needs, while also showing off some great action beats. With Luke Cage out of his element, fans should be excited to see just what the series has in store for the hero.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Generation X #1
Written by Christina Strain
Art by Amilcar Pinna and Felipe Sobreiro
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Some of the strongest X-books have historically been those that cover mutant school days. The concept of mutant high school ties well with the secondary theme of mutation - as an analog of puberty. The universal relatability of that combined with strong characterization is what made New Mutants, X-Men: Evolution, and even stretches of New X-Men as memorable and beloved as they are. Generation X #1 is obviously trying to play in the narrative space occupied by those classic stories, but its hesitation to relinquish panel time to its lesser known cast leaves readers with a foggy idea of who these characters are and with little in the way of a reason to care about them.

Writer Christina Strain is at her best when writing Jubilee. There is a nuance present in her within the first few pages that quickly establishes an anchor from which to explore other, younger mutants. And for a little while, to the comic's credit, the creative team runs with this. The interaction between Phoebe Cuckoo and Nathaniel Carver, while partially inaccessible to new or casual readers, establishes both characters while avoiding meet-cute territory. The story then pivots to Jubilee and Kitty Pryde discussing Jubilee's future as a mentor for the Xavier Institute. The juxtaposition of the two has the potential for some interesting character work for Jubilee, with Kitty being a woman who is apparently excelling at wearing multiple hats and shouldering multiple responsibilities, and Jubilee as a woman who is having a much harder time doing the same, but the comic doesn't seem concerned with exploring that. This entire middle section of the comic seems too focused on Kitty, a character who isn't even in the first-page line-up for Generation X.

Strain writes Quintin Quire well, as he winds up taking the spotlight from Kitty. While he is clearly being set up as a foil to new character Nathaniel Carver, Strain keeps the two students apart for this issue. This has mixed consequences. On one hand, it is nice that what will likely be a major conflict for the series is being saved for when the characters' roles are more clearly defined, but on the other hand, it deprives this issue of what could have been a strong character moment to get readers invested.

And post-Kid Omega, the issue gets sloppy. The dialogue feels a little wooden and too many central characters are given lines that fail to give the reader an idea of who they are. The ending moment of the Purifiers attacking the school also falls short. It somehow manages to make the prospect of several men invading a school with firearms uninteresting and non-threatening. It is a threat that is at odds with the more character-heavy approach that the comic seems to want. The Purifiers just seem out of place, and it's hard to imagine any real consequence of their appearance. They will likely just be disposed of within the first few pages of the next issue. In 2017, armed intruders at a school is a Big Deal. It's not a throwaway cliffhanger for a prologue.

Amilcar Pinna's art is unique, and the sort of thing that will resonate strongly with some readers and turn other readers off. It is a much less conventional style than any of the other X-books currently have, and is rather bold with its use of angles. Some of the faces seem a little strange, but as interesting art is is still refreshing. Felipe Sobreiro's color work is solid throughout, as the clear palette switches indoor and outdoor scenes give each a defined sense of space.

As a series that focuses on the lives of lesser known mutants, Generation X is the perfect base for experimentation and unique storytelling. The fact that it plays so safe and doesn't seem to trust its own characters makes this debut issue a disappointment. It's a comic that desperately wants to have heart, but doesn't do enough to prove it isn't vacuous. Maybe the second issue will be more dedicated to its team once the throwaway cliffhanger is dealt with, as it does have the pieces of a strong story, but that isn't a good sentiment to end the first issue on.

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