Best Shots Reviews: ASTONISHING X-MEN #3, BATMAN #30, VENOMVERSE #1

Batman #30
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Astonishing X-Men #3
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Ed McGuinness, Mark Morales, and Jason Keith
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

London is burning. Psychics are being weaponized. The Shadow King has you trapped in the Astral Plane.

It’s bad news for the Astonishing X-Men. But for Old Man Logan, it’s just another Wednesday.

While people might say that Daredevil is Charles Soule’s best work at Marvel, I might respectfully disagree, using the previous three issues of Astonishing X-Men as my Exhibit A. Action-packed, wonderfully reverential to history yet never slavish to continuity, this Logan-centric issue of Astonishing X-Men is a real breath of fresh air to read. With the quality of writing being this good, it also allows this book to continue its rotating cast of artists, with Ed McGuinness reminding us why he’s the best there is at what he does - if what he does is draw Wolverine making his way through his latest bloody gauntlet.

Spinning off the ensemble-based story of the previous two issues, Soule takes this issue to examine one of the defining relationships of the X-Men franchise over the past 20 years - namely, Logan’s dynamic with Charles Xavier, who is currently a psychic prisoner of the Shadow King, playing his X-Men against Farouk’s illusions for the fate of all mankind. What’s so smart about Soule's writing here isn’t just the way he describes his characters or deftly drops in exposition by asking the reader how they would feel if they, like Logan, were tricked into killing everyone they ever loved - but the way he uses the Astral Plane to reveal characterization about his heroes, like the idea that Logan’s mental battlefield is always freezing cold, because while he wants to win, he needs to suffer.

That simplicity of the playing field also plays to McGuiness’s strengths, with Logan cutting a rugged figure against the inky black skyline as he trudges his way to the Shadow King. There’s a wonderful ferocity to his take on Logan, as he scales an icy mountain to fight an army of ninja demons - granted, sometimes the emotion isn’t quite as vivid as one might expect with a character as disturbed as Old Man Logan, such as a brief moment where he sees his wife and children taken away by the Hulk Gang, but that also speaks to the more inclusive tone that this series is trying to take. There’s a great tightrope between nostalgia and newness to this series - we watch Charles Xavier don his iconic psychic battle armor again, but also as a counterpoint, we have Logan telling us about adventures such a 20-year exile in the Astral Plane. It’s a great balancing act that gives this franchise some much-needed energy while reminding us why we’ve stuck around all these years.

Honestly, if you pick up one Marvel book this week, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend anything over Astonishing X-Men. This book has been a dynamic and thoughtful adventure that thinks deeply about the enduring nature of the Children of the Atom, portrayed brilliantly by a murderer’s row of artistic talent. If you haven’t been reading this book, buckle up and take a ride to the Astral Plane, because this book is certainly living up to its name.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #30
Written by Tom King
Art by Clay Mann, Seth Mann, and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The ballad of Kite Man moves into its melancholy second verse in Batman #30. Though big moves have been made in "The War of Jokes and Riddles," Tom King again focuses on Kite Man and delivers yet another beautiful and powerfully sad look at the people caught in the wake of superheroic action and villainous machinations. Combined with the return of the Mann brothers, who portray war-torn Gotham with lithe characters and a masterful use of page space, Batman #30 is the kind of poetically woeful “man on the street” story comics should be doing more of.

“Mommy said you’re a joke.” These words come pretty early in the story, but Tom King keeps the implications of them ringing throughout the entire issue. Framed by a running dialogue between Kite Man and his late son, King uses this interlude to further break down the ideology of Kite Man. What he presents us with is a very stubborn, very lonely, and a very broken man getting caught up into forces that just want to use him for their own designs. Kite Man, of course, is in on the “joke,” but that doesn’t make it any less sad.

Delivering a constant string of failures for Kite Man, King poses him as the ultimate schmuck in the War of Jokes and Riddles. But as his frequent beatings at the hands of Batman give the issue plenty of comedic gags (as well as chances for the Manns and colorist Jordie Bellaire to flex their formidable art muscles), King twists the knife deeper as Kite Man tries to explain his newfound villainy with his twistedly bull-headed personal philosophy. It is super-heavy stuff to be subjected to in the pages of a comic about a billionaire vigilante, but I appreciate Tom King’s continued commitment to thinking outside of the normal capes-and-tights paradigm.

Clay, Seth Mann, and Jordie Bellaire also get to do a healthy amount of subversion in this 30th issue. As more and more of the Joker’s army falls at the hands of the new Batman/Riddler alliance, the Manns’ artwork gets more and more distant from each defeat, starting with a brutal opening with Caped Crusader decking Kite Man and gradually zooming out from there. It is a really novel way to approach Batman’s prowess in the field, and one that brings the focus on the punchee rather than the puncher in a much more meaningful way, either for comedic purposes, such as Mr. Freeze realizing how screwed they are during an air raid, or for something much more maudlin, like a scene of Kite Man slumping off-panel on foot after his beloved is smashed.

With "The War of Jokes and Riddles" still raging, Batman #30 is another weird gut punch of an issue from Tom King. Though the way he structures his stories can comfortably be called “head-scratching,” the actual scripts and artwork throughout the arc have been too good to deny and too strange not to experience firsthand. I have no idea how the “Ballad of Kite Man” will end, but for now, it is a journey I am still enjoying.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Venomverse #1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Iban Coello and Matt Yackey
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Eddie Brock gets his own magical tour of the Multiverse in Venomverse #1, bringing the Lethal Protector side-by-side with symbiote-sporting counterparts of major Marvel characters like Captain America, Doctor Strange, Wolverine, and X-23. But when it comes to this spiritual successor to Dan Slott’s “Spider-Verse” arc, do the clothes make the man? So far, it’s too early to say if the alien black suit is the right fit for the Marvel Universe as a whole, but writer Cullen Bunn throws plenty of action at his readers that is beautifully rendered by artist Iban Coello.

If there’s any one thing that stands out the most to me about Venomverse, it has to be seeing the level up that Iban Coello has made. There are plenty of artists like David Marquez and Valerio Schiti that make their way up the trenches of the Big Two, and Coello definitely takes this opportunity and runs with it - there’s a wonderful smoothness to his inks and a dynamism to his compositions even from the first few pages, as we watch Jack-O-Lantern zoom through the city on his broomstick before Eddie jumps him from a rooftop, bellowing “Mama didn’t teach me good manners!” (It’s an effective opening, what can I say?)

And perhaps what’s even more impressive is that, on its surface, Venom as a character and Venomverse as a concept isn’t even something that necessarily plays to Coello’s strengths - with his pointed fangs, rippling muscles and green-spittled tongue, Venom is a creature of hard angles and chaos, while the rest of the Venomized cast designs ranges from pretty cool to semi-goofy (sorry, Logan, with your Venomized hair, or the Doomsday-style Hulk). But Coello takes these characters and makes them sing, even in particularly dialogue-heavy scenes - his take on the Venomized X-23 is cool as hell, and he brings a great kinetic quality to Spider-Man as his Spider-Sense goes off. Honestly, if this issue is Coello’s tryout for the main Spider-Man title, I’d say he’s certainly making a strong case for himself.

It’s Coello’s artwork that provides a great foundation as Cullen Bunn’s story unfurls. Right now, it’s not clear what Bunn’s larger game is, but it’s fun to see him playing with the various characters of the Marvel Universe, particularly spinning out weird Venomized mashups like Ghost Rider or Rocket Raccoon. (In that way, Venomverse feels like the weird, gothy younger brother to DC’s Batman-centric Metal.) The story is simple - drone versions of the Poison symbiote are hunting and taking over the various Venoms - so in that regard, this first issue does sag a little bit with some talk-heavy scenes that overexplain things just to get more characters a speaking role. But there are some hints of something a bit more personal and chilling to Eddie Brock here - particularly when he tells Captain America that he can’t be tempted, because “no one means anything to me” - and you can’t deny that there are plenty of action sequences to keep things going.

Ultimately, the thing that will make or break Venomverse in my eyes is if Bunn and company have something to say about the character himself in all this. In my mind, Venom has always been a character that represents addiction - about whether or not that bond with Eddie Brock is fully self-destructive, or a necessary evil when balanced against the merits of protecting others. So seeing Doctor Strange or Steve Rogers bonded with a Venom suit - let alone extolling their virtues as species they will die to protect - has almost a sinister undertone, one that I hope Bunn will explore further throughout this series. As it stands, it’s too early to tell if black is more fitting for the Marvel Universe, but as a debut, Venomverse’s beautiful artwork has my interest piqued for a second installment.

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