Best Shots Reviews: DARK KNIGHT III - MASTER RACE #9, BLACK BOLT #2, PAPER GIRLS #15, More

Image Comics June 2017 cover
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Dark Knight III: The Master Race #9
Written by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello
Art by Frank Miller, Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before - Frank Miller is problematic as hell. You’ve seen it in his interviews; you’ve seen it in his conservative, even reactionary work, like Holy Terror (or even the message board-bating title of his latest series, Dark Knight III: The Master Race). Which is why the finale of this series - which has had every bit of the cringe-inducing racial politics of some of his previous work - still manages to surprise you. Because underneath all the grit and the bombast and the ultraviolence, DKIII ends in a place that seems almost by definition the opposite of everything Frank Miller has come to represent over the past 30 years - a place of optimism and love for superheroes and their stories.

The Dark Knight trilogy has worked thus far on an escalating scale. The original Dark Knight Returns was all deconstruction, one that broke Batman down like an old revolver and then reassembled and aimed him at the fears, hatred, and crime of the ’80s. The Dark Knight Strikes Again was more of a special kind of crazy, as Miller’s Justice League tackled its own warped brand of Silver Age insanity. DKIII, however, closes the cycle on a shockingly optimistic beat, gradually revealing itself to be more of a Superman/Batman story that strives for something more inspiring than just “a good death” for Bruce Wayne.

This may sound a bit lofty, but rest assured, DKIII is still just as shaky structurally as the rest of the series as the scene transitions feel like blunt cuts to separate action even when characters are all occupying the same space, even with the usually tight co-scripting of Azzarello. These transitions are made a bit smoother thanks to the purposefully Miller-esque artwork of Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson, and Brad Anderson, all of whom completely commit to the Miller aesthetic for good and ill. Kubert’s panache for artsy set pieces is a bit repressed here, opting for more simple and straightforward layout and action.

The inks of Janson and the colors of Anderson are also pretty straightforward as well, almost workman like. Janson’s inks provide a rigid definition to Kubert’s pencils, especially in a stark white scene of Bruce at the Bat-Computer that turns the entire page into a florescent alcove, made complete with tiny stair steps that seem to lead into the page. Though it isn't quite the bombastic ending I was expecting, Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson, and Brad Anderson still make a real go of it with lantern jawed and murkily colors tributes to the writer they surely feel privileged to work with.

But Miller and Azzarello’s stuttering structure aside, the finale of DKIII hides an unexpectedly uplifting final beat for the Dark Knight trilogy, and one that finally justifies all those insane back-up stories we’ve sat through after the previous eight issues. Reborn thanks to Superman’s super science, Batman aims to take a last stand against Quar and his fanatics with the help of his new Zur-En-Arrh-colored Batgirl, a very Miller-fied Justice League, and Superman and Wonder Woman’s daughter Lara.

It is in this section and the subsequent backup story that Miller and Azzarello reveal a rarely-seen pathos, setting up a worldbreaking threat and then shifting away from the acerbic satire that defined this trilogy to deliver an honestly refreshing superhero story. Though it’s still tinged with his trademark noirish flair, it is largely devoid of his usual misanthropy and disinterest with traditional “hero vs. villain” stories. I never thought in a million years I would think this, but DKIII #9 actually sent me out believing in Superman, Batman, and the rest of the DC pantheon and a bit more aware of the fan's heart that beats beneath Miller’s hard-edged public persona.

Superman tells his daughter Lara in the back-up story that he doesn’t just love humanity, he admires it, and for the first time probably ever in a Frank Miller comic, I believe him and you will too after reading DKIII #9. Through all the bluff, bluster, and numerous un-PC gaffs, Miller, Azzarello and a reverently talented creative team have ended this latest opus on an uncharacteristic note, but a powerfully hopeful one; one that shows that one of comic’s most controversial creators might just be big ol’ superhero-loving softie after all.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Black Bolt #2
Written by Saladin Ahmed
Art by Christian Ward
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

As Black Bolt #2 focuses tightly on the characters occupying its cruel and unusual celestial prison, it makes its central themes obvious. What makes you a criminal? How does punishment change you? Is there a difference between a killer and a murderer? What would it look like if a Kree pirate swiped left on the Inhuman king? While that last one is a joke, it shows artist Christian Ward at his most subtle and provides the funniest and lightest panel of the issue. Writer Saladin Ahmed spends most of the issue exploring those first three questions through character actions and particularly stellar dialogue.

The first issue concluded with the first death and resurrection of Blackagar Boltagon. This one picks up several resurrections later. Immediately noticeable is Ahmed’s skill with subtlety as a writer. Black Bolt is killed horrifically several times. He is tortured, forced to confess his crimes and flaws, tortured again, and killed. He witnesses his fellow inmates, one of which is a child, suffer the same fate. There is horror - real horror - at the mention of these events against the oppressive and uncomfortable atmosphere that Ward conjures with the setting. Ahmed is never gratuitous with something that could easily be gratuitous. The reader is left uncomfortable and anxious, as being deprived of visuals of the excessive torture and murder leaves us to fill in the blanks. There are few things more terrifying than filling in the blanks.

The middle of the issue is filled with Black Bolt and his comrades-by-circumstance - Blinky, Creel, and Molyb - interacting with Spyder. Spyder serves an interesting role. He is just as much of a captive as the other characters, but instead, chooses to work with the Jailer. Ahmed chose well by making Spyder the inmate that aligns with his captors for a few reasons. Of the characters who debuted before this title, Spyder is the least redeemable, from his actions way back in Louise Simonson’s New Mutants. Spyder is also really conducive to Ward’s unique art style of cosmic psychedelia. Ultimately, he has just as little hope as the other prisoners, but exerting his will and holding on to whatever small bit of power he gets is what keeps him distracted from the fact that he will die in that prison. Spyder then transports Black Bolt to a bizarre coliseum that appears to be filled with bloodthirsty automaton spectators. It is here that he meets and fights the aforementioned Kree pirate Raava. The comic ends with Creel’s plan to escape with Blinky, Molyb, Raava, and the recently-enlisted Black Bolt.

Where the character work suffers is how actions and motivations line up. For the most part, this is good and consistent throughout, but Creel and Raava both revealing that they were pulling their punches in their respective fights with Black Bolt for the purpose of testing him feels artificial. Creel’s claim may require some whistling past the graveyard, it doesn’t outright contradict the conflict he had with Black Bolt in this or the previous issue. Raava, on the other hand, makes things messier. Spyder transported Black Bolt to the coliseum to fight Raava. This is a thing he does fairly regularly as all of the other characters are afraid of this. Raava, the text suggests, has no problem executing those she defeats in these fights. Her saying that she threw the fight with Black Bolt just to see if he would or would not murder her to follow orders falls apart with even the slightest scrutiny and makes little sense for a character who doesn’t seem to be built on a foundation of laughable choices. The theme touched on here is strong, it’s just a shame that it’s done so haphazardly.

Let’s not mince words. Christian Ward’s art in this series is, at two issues in, making this one of the best-drawn books of 2017. Coloring, panel layout, presentation, and framing are all handled with precision and perfectly balance between well-drawn realism and stylized psychedelia. The end result is a title that lands somewhere between Gankutsuou and Gotham Academy, with art that so perfectly captures the spirit of its own story. Ward’s one misstep in the comic is coincidentally the same place narratively where Ahmed stumbles. If you keep your eye on Black Bolt’s sword during his fight with Raava, you’ll notice that it perpetually changes shape and proportion. This would ordinarily be unnoticeable, but the incredible quasi-splash-but-with-two-more-panels that predate the scene has an emphasis on the stranger physical qualities of the sword and draws the reader’s attention to it. It ultimately doesn’t detract from the otherwise fluid action sequence too much, but may throw you off if you have an attentive eye.

Black Bolt #2’s greatest strength is how different it dares to be in a story that deserves thoughtful examination of its protagonist. While the issue has its flaws, they seemed mostly in the service of getting the pieces where Ahmed wants them to be for the rest of the mini-series. The promise he made at the end of the first issue to explore themes of significant depth alongside adrenaline-filled action holds true, making this a sound book to usher in a summer of comics.

Credit: DC Comics

The Flintstones #12
Written by Mark Russell
Art by Steve Pugh and Chris Chuckry
Lettered by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Luckily the end of days is not imminent for the Flintstones, as the Great Gazoo is not going to be destroying the town of Bedrock, but it is sadly goodbye to the series, a social satire that selected a myriad of present-day topics and applied them to a primitive setting to examine them further. As you might expect from the prior issues’ quality, this final one functions not only as a singular comic book unit, dealing with a primary plot involving Mr. Slate and a bowling competition, but also as a spectacular piece of serialised fiction, layering in jokes and plots that have built over the course of the series. Mark Russell and his collaborators manage to pay them all off, ending in a way that shows the heart of this series which has been beating like a drum since the very start.

What makes this issue, and series so special is how it exists within the parameters of the source material. That originally took the idea of a 20th Century family and their sensibilities, then translated them into a prehistoric setting. Russell went with the same approach, instead considering the 21st Century. The show was a sitcom and this title keeps it that way while also adding in a degree of serialization in order to modernise The Flintstones without completely revamping it.

The reason this worked as well as it did is because Russell kept an initial grounding in place, a constant of this ever-evolving world. Here, it’s the very literal Bedrock. Places like Baltimore in The Wire becomes characters in their own right because they’re big enough to allow for such a diverse array of characters, regardless of how minor they are, that can crop up as and when they’re needed. This series might be called The Flintstones and Russell clearly understands the family relationship at this series’ core, but there’s so many other characters like Mr. Slate or Reverend Tom involved that it feels like you could take a stroll through Bedrock and find an intriguing non-sequitur around every corner.

In this instance, that comes in the shape of a sermon from Reverend Tom that gives Pebbles reason to think. While it’s further proof that the pacing and structure of this series are so precise, it also shows how dynamite Steve Pugh and Chris Chuckry are together. Pugh frames the sermon from within the assembled crowd and each character feels unique, while also fitting with the people that stand adjacent. Some appear to have the same hair style, but they’re clearly not the same figure copy and pasted throughout the scene. Not only that, but there’s a single source of light in the scene, an open flame illuminating the Reverend. As both the light and the Reverend are higher up, that light captures him, but not the crowd who are shrouded in darkness, yet it’s not pitch black. Chuckry uses a palette which is inherently bright without veering into neon-like territory. In conjunction with letterer Dave Sharpe’s dynamic sound effects and Pugh’s style, this series had an ability to sell any concept, like animation where anything can exist as long as you can draw it.

A sitcom is 22 minutes; this is 22 pages. In a medium like comic bookss where the way the team constructs a page affects how long the issue lasts, Russell, Pugh, Chuckry and Sharpe were sure to fill each issue with as much as they could. Absurdist in the best way, the team took concepts and ran with them when other creative teams would balk at the notion of using a tenth of the ideas on display here. In doing so, they found biting satire, but understood when to cut through this and find genuine, heart-warming sentiment. It was when the creatures enslaved as household appliances found time to bond, when the boys came back from war and you’ll recognise it here, as the narration, and the series comes to a close, leaving off on a belief that Bedrock, and future humanity will continue to go on.

Credit: Image Comics

Paper Girls #15
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Image Comics
Review by Kat Calamia
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Paper Girls #15 marks the last issue of the series’ third story arc as the girls try to escape prehistoric times. This is a strong character-driven issue that leaves readers with more questions than answers in a very “Paper Girls” type of way. The lack of answers is a little disappointing because the series will be taking a three-month hiatus after this issue, but the character beats still make this trip to the past a worthwhile adventure.

K.J. has been the strongest aspect of writer Brian K. Vaughan’s third story arc, and her great character moments continue through Paper Girls #15. The story opens up with K.J. running towards Mac, expecting open arms from her potential love interest. Mac is furious that K.J. put herself in danger with the cavemen, but K.J. realizes that she’s tired of being the person who overthinks everything. This is a great moment for Mac and K.J.’s budding relationship showcasing how much Mac cares for K.J.’s well-being. This is also a foreshadowing for K.J.’s big character moment at the end of the issue, where she learns that she must suffer the consequences of her rash actions.

K.J. continues to be the “action girl” in this arc as she sees her visions from the floating monster are starting to come true. The cavemen fathers are in the process of killing Wari’s child, Jahpo. In the fight to keep reality intact, time traveler Doctor Braunstein leaps in to save the child, even if it comes at the cost of her life. When K.J. kills the caveman to save the doctor, blood lands on Braunstein’s face, becoming the the first of K.J.’s visions to come true - this visual is particularly interesting as Paper Girls begins to take on a psychologically darker turn.

Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson’s artwork does a beautiful job at conveying the emotions needed for this scene. Wilson uses the luminous light from the folding in the sky to intensify the scene. The bright colors contrast K.J.’s violent act. Chiang puts literal blood on K.J.’s hands as the small snippet of her vision shows to be grimmer than K.J. could have imagined.

At the end of the issue the girls escape prehistoric times, but are once again separated. The cliffhanger shifts the narrative onto Tiffany, giving a hint that the next arc will focus on her character. The ending showcases a more modern setting, which Chiang already embraces as store brands start burning in the background of this mysterious timeline.

The third arc of Paper Girls focused on giving K.J. a strong narrative, a character that hadn’t had enough spotlight up to this point. Paper Girls #15 is propelled by some great characterization that gives K.J. multiple shining moments as she passes the narrative baton to Tiffany’s character for the series’ fourth story arc. While some readers may grit their teeth at the lack of closure, hopefully this shift in narrative and setting will give readers more answers regarding the world of Paper Girls.

Credit: Alexis Ziritt (AdHouse Books)

Tarantula OGN
Written by Fabian Rangel, Jr.
Art by Alexis Ziritt
Lettering by Evelyn Rangel
Published by AdHouse Books
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Tarantula is a surreal and immediately engrossing reading experience. Brought to you by the team behind Black Mask Studios’ Space Riders, Tarantula is a throwback from the opening credits pages. Every inch of the book, from its campy B-movie cover to the vibrant final page, feels nostalgic and strangely alive all at once - there’s a texture to Alexis Ziritt’s art and colors evocative of older newsprint comics, but his use of vivid fuchsia and yellow give make each panel of Tarantula seem strangely alive. Ziritt and Fabian Rangel have created a strange and fascinating world that blends classic noir elements with an unrepentantly weird supernatural tale that would fit right in on any episode of Tales from the Crypt.

The graphic novel follows the titular Tarantula, a masked vigilante tracking the trafficking of a strange new drug all the way to the highest offices in the city - the corrupt and devious Mayor. Together with her former mentor Señor Muerte and the shadowy Sombra, Tarantula whipcracks her way through drug lords and Satanic rituals in an effort to cleanse her home of the dark powers plaguing it. Rangel and Ziritt waste no time with explanations or exposition: you’ll be immediately thrown to the underbelly of a place where no one questions bird-headed henchmen and masked detectives, and Satanic rituals to take over the city seem to be just another day on the job. Though Tarantula shares some tropes with traditional superhero tales, its beats and rhythm share more with classic noir crime tales with a devilish twist.

Rangel gives each character their own strong and easily distinguished voice in the rhythm of their dialogue and their own distinct vocabularies; while the skull-faced Señor Muerte lacks some vital facial features to be as expressive as Ziritt makes Tarantula or the unmasked Sombra, Rangel makes him seem stern and fatherly all the same, with a wry humor evident in Evelyn Rangel’s careful lettering. This is certainly the ideal for comics, but not necessarily the norm, and Rangel’s script easily overcomes the challenges presented by his and Ziritt’s inhuman designs and Ziritt’s often busy illustrations.

AdHouse describes Tarantula as “psychedelic pulp,” and there’s no better turn of phrase to use for Ziritt’s work here. The world of Tarantula is populated by figures with no faces, crystal heads, and nightmarish drug-fueled trips through characters’ subconscious, but Ziritt’s work is never hard to follow. His bold lines and sometimes simple color palettes in some of the more normal scenes call to mind comics in the vein of Dick Tracy, giving Tarantula moments grounded strongly enough in our conception of reality to make the book easy to follow while adding an extra oomph to spreads like the book’s final battle against a demon beast from the underworld. The book is gruesome and violent in ways that’s surreal without being comical, but Rangel and Ziritt have an excellent sense of when to punctuate the bloodbaths with a witty one-liner or tongue-in-cheek visual gag that also keeps Tarantula from being a relentless slog of emotionally draining action sequences.

It’s evident from the character designs to the dialogue to the art that the entire team had fun creating the book, and their efforts in turn make it an incredibly fun way to kick off your summer with a blockbuster read. There are few books on the market quite like Tarantula, and it’s a must-read for anyone interesting in some genre-bending comics that are off the beaten path. Plus, there’s a luchadore detective. Where else but Tarantula will you find that in comics these days?

Similar content
Twitter activity