Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN #31, GENERATIONS - CAPTAIN MARVEL & MS. MARVEL, More

Generations: Captain Marvel & Ms. Marvel
Credit: Kris Anka (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Jason Fabok/Dean White (DC Comics)

Batman: The Red Death #1
Written by Joshua Williamson
Art by Carmine Di Giandomenico and Ivan Plascencia
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

"The mind is a plaything of the body."

It’s hard not to think of that iconic paraphrasing of Friedrich Nietzsche while reading Batman: The Red Death #1, in which we see how certain changes can completely change people and personalities. In that way, Joshua Williamson’s impressively written comic excels, as it presents readers with the same high stakes, over-the-top action and lore-intensive drama that have made Dark Nights: Metal as fun as it has been, while simultaneously leaving a lot to mull over and confront about our heroes as well as ourselves. As the comic states in one of its more conspicuous references: All it takes is one bad day.

Earth-52 is dying. The Batman and the Flash of that universe are having a brutal fight in one appears to be the final days of that universe. In a very 2015 Secret Wars move, the weight of what it means for a universe to be collapsing is glossed over as we see only a passing glimpse of the average human scrambling in a collapsing city, though Batman and Flash are written well enough that readers will find themselves caring about those characters despite the fact that DC has a few spares. Where things really start to get interesting is when Batman incapacitates Flash and harnesses the Speed Force, thus becoming the Red Death.

Batman’s first few panels as the Red Death are the strongest in the issue in terms of plot. Having the Speed Force has fundamentally changed Bruce Wayne’s body and how it works, which has subsequently changed the way that he thinks. The issue makes explicit that the Red Death doesn’t brood, dwell on his actions, or reflect. What then happens to the personality of Batman when deprived of those character traits? We see a Batman void of inhibitions, but one that is all the more terrifying because it’s easy to trace the parts of his personality that are familiar to us. Readers often think of how our heroes’ powers are perfect reflections of their personalities. It’s unsettling to think that the personalities are, in fact, a reflection of the powers. In a medium that deals so explicitly with the idea of good versus evil and morality, that makes everything feel much more unstable.

The issue is a weird sort of tie-in that is a self-contained story while also being extremely dependent on context from Metal. It is very much a story taking place alongside and then within Metal than a story where the central event is just a backdrop. In a lot of ways that forgives the unusual pacing and subsequent abrupt end of the issue, but also hurts the issue in the sense that this really shouldn’t be a reader's first exposure to the central event - you’d easily find yourself lost in the wealth of mythology that it references, manipulates, and creates. The way we are introduced to the Red Death before he is introduced to Earth Prime leaves the book feeling as though it has two first acts. Carmine Di Giandomenico’s art also contributes to this, as it will likely be divisive in terms of fan response.

Di Giandomenico flips artistic convention on its head from the first panel and frequently embellishes a more traditional house style with strange flourishes, such as blurry overlays of Barry and Bruce’s faces, lens flares, or, as in the artistic highlight of Batman obtaining the Speed Force, a complete breakdown of the way we have been conditioned to expect our panels to be delivered. The greatest strength of the art in this issue is that it takes advantage of this medium, and does things in panels which could only be accomplished in comic books. A downside of this is the sheer level of chaos populating the pages of this issue. While this is undoubtedly a highlight on some pages, most of which involving the Red Death, and provide those scenes with a striking kinetic energy, it feels at other times like too much. Di Giandomenico’s art winds up competing with Williamson’s script and its three narrators, two of which often use the same panels for their lines.

Colorist Ivan Plascencia’s contribution to the comic is notable, as the are what complete the look and intrigue of the Red Death’s appearances. The dramatic glow of Plascencia’s bright colors contrasted with darker colors winds up looking more primal than neon, and really conveys a sense of power in the characters’ actions. Backgrounds are also made more exciting by the way the colors react with what is largely red in the panels. Jason Fabok and Dean White deserve special mention for their cover, which is eye-catching and harkens back to the first issue of Flashpoint.

Despite its status as a tie-in, it’s hard not to recommend Batman: The Red Death #1 to anybody already following Metal. Its character work may be mostly inferred, but the large ideas that it touches on are grand enough that it’s hard to leave the issue without thinking critically about the personalities of the DC heroes, or even of your own personality and how experiences are perhaps the only true contributing factor to a self. It’s scary to think that Bruce Wayne isn’t the pilot of Batman but that the cowl makes the man, and while that’s certainly nothing new in a Batman comic, changing the cowl to change the man has hardly been better explored, yet alone with such interesting and dynamic art.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Generations: Captain Marvel & Ms. Marvel #1
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Art by Paolo Villanelli and Ian Herring
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Kamala Khan has been one of Marvel’s brightest new characters of the past few years, but her relationship with her legacy counterpart hasn’t always been great. In the wake of Secret Empire and Kobik’s meddling, Kamala goes back in time and interacts with a Carol Danvers who hasn’t been quite as broken by the weight of history yet. G. Willow Wilson and Paolo Villanelli craft a light and fun little tale that fits in well with reader expectations of a Ms. Marvel story while also possibly recontextualizing the relationship that Kamala has with Carol Danvers. Villanelli’s work, along with great colors from Ian Herring, make this one a solid read overall.

One very telling bit of narration has Kamala talking about how she doesn’t really see herself as the successor to Captain Marvel, and that’s an important detail. Kamala might share her codename with Carol, but she’s much more in the vein of the teen heroes who came before her like Peter Parker, Kitty Pryde, Richard Rider and Chris Powell. Kamala forging her own legacy has been a vital part of her journey as a hero, a woman and a person of color, so I like that Wilson doesn’t undermine that here. Much of this story is about Kamala teaching Carol not to underestimate her, not so much the other way around, and the result is just good ol’ fashioned superhero fun. Kamala makes a lot of references to her own past continuity. We get cameos from Peter Parker and J. Jonah Jameson. There’s punching and embiggening, and there’s a lot of heart. That’s the most important part. It’s simple and straightforward, but it works.

The art team really knocks it out of the park with this one. Paolo Villanelli’s linework is clear and concise. His instincts for consistent visual storytelling are on point, and there’s a lot of grace in his page and panel layouts. Much like Wilson’s story, he’s not reinventing the wheel here. The story has a throwback quality to it because of the time period, and so Villanelli doesn’t do too much with his pages. The only time he really breaks from traditional modular layouts is during fight scenes, and that adds the necessary dynamism to those pages without overwhelming the reading experience. Ian Herring adds a little bit of grit and texture to his colors that make the book look almost a little bit more like an old back issue. And in a fairly clever bit, he limits the colors generally to those found in Kamala and Carol’s costumes throughout the book.

Generations and by extension, Legacy, seem to to be less about hitting a reset button on the Marvel Universe and more about reintroducing story potential to characters who may have moved too far from their core. A story like this one, while light and seemingly inconsequential, could definitely affect the relationship that Carol and Kamala have moving forward and this lays the groundwork for some of that. It’s something that honors the past while still looking to the future. Wilson, Villanelli, and Herring’s work is the foundation for a new era of Ms. Marvel stories.

Credit: Mikel Janin (DC Comics)

Batman #31
Written by Tom King
Art by Mikel Janin and June Chung
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“The War of Jokes and Riddles” receives a surprisingly low-key penultimate issue in this week’s Batman #31. Wrapping up his current epic, writer Tom King delivers a final gambit that is fully focused on the main players of the arc: Batman, Joker, Riddler, Catwoman, and yes, even Kite Man. Though this chapter marks a decidedly different scope and tone for the arc, I am curious to see how King plans to bring this all to a close when so many arcs opt to take the bigger, louder approach. Combined with the expressive character models and taut action choreography of artist Mikel Janin and colorist June Chung that punctuate this story with some needed action, Batman #31 isn’t earth-shattering, but it is a fun and breezy read.

The Riddler and Batman have zeroed in on the Joker’s location; the 73rd floor of a building only accessible by window. Now all they have to do is get up there. Can you say “Kite Man - hell yeah”? While Tom King’s run has been everything from prosaic to poetic, this latest issue is almost shockingly straightforward - but that doesn’t exactly make it great. I have been one of the champion’s of King’s dreamy, theatrical take on the title thus far and while “The War of Jokes and Riddles” has been a weird, villainous romp so far, so it’s hard to deny a certain disappointment seeing the story scale down its scope this close to the end. Of course, King has a plan, and I admire his commitment to keeping this as a sort of confession for Bruce Wayne to Selina Kyle, who also gets a neat showcase scene this month, I just wish this issue was a little less superhero story and a little more meditation on a superhero story like the previous issues.

Keeping with King’s low-key tone is penciler Mikel Janin and June Chung, who take this comparatively low-key script and turn it into opportunities for injecting humanity into the exaggerated characters and finely-tuned action beats (sometimes within the same sequence!). Though the pair get a chance for the ol’ splash page razzle-dazzle once the story hits its midpoint, Janin and Chung’s intimate scenes are what really sell the story, and makes the team’s amped-up tone feel all the more real. Two great examples of this are the opening scenes of Batman and Riddler verbally sparring before they take Joker’s building, in which Janin spreads dramatic shadows over the Riddler’s smug face and Batman’s steely resolve, despite the fact that June Chung has colored the scene to be at the height of day.

Shortly after we are deposited on a rooftop where the hapless Kite Man is trying to compensate for the weight of a certain man-eating croc-man. Janin bounces hilariously between Kite Man and Killer Croc for a bit, really selling King’s comedy and even making some his own, like with the reveal that Kite Man is holding the biggest kite we’ve ever seen and saying something like, “You’d be surprised what kites can hold.” Then we are smack in the middle of a splash page in which Batman, Riddler and Kite Man lead #TeamRiddler through the skies of Gotham on giant kites. I am all about the mixture of the ridiculous and the realistic that comics can deliver and Mikel Janin and June Chung seem to know the right ingredients for exactly that. Hell yeah.

And so the war looks to end like it began, with three men, alone in a room, and no way the whole mess doesn’t end in bloodshed. Though certainly a downgrade in weirdness and ambition, Batman #31 is still a rousing read. That may not be good enough for some, but I have faith this story’s last chapter will still fly.

Credit: Danny Luckert

Tethered
Written by David Faroz Precht
Art by Danny Luckert
Lettering by Lindsay McComb
Self-Published
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

In the never-ending cycle of pop culture, sometimes good ideas get lost in the shuffle. Such is the case with Tethered, a book that’s unfortunately betrayed by the trappings of zombie fiction when in reality it’s doing a lot to subvert them. David Faroz Precht, Danny Luckert, and Lindsay McComb are not in the business of telling just another zombie story. The genre conventions are a vehicle for a larger rumination on life and death as understood through the ideas of Albert Camus, Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway. It’s ambitious, at times to a fault, but there’s a lot to be said to trying in a genre that many have written off in the wake of powerhouse franchises like The Walking Dead.

One of the most interesting aspects of Tethered is the meaning behind its title. The zombie characters that we get to know have their souls still tethered to their undead bodies. They can watch themselves in third person, trailing behind like unwilling observers to the ed of the world. It’s a striking idea because it’s a fate almost worse than death - being an eternal passenger. It’s a dour existence and the first character we meet, Albert, takes to it with a certain severity. When we finally meet Jack, it’s almost like a breath of fresh air. He’s a little bit looser and easygoing than Albert, and he’s discovered something vital - he can take back control of his body.

Here’s where Precht elevates his narrative above your typical zombie story. Albert and Jack are representative of their namesakes, particularly Camus and Kerouac. They exist as kind of a point-counterpoint throughout the narrative. Even though on some level both of them are unhappy with their current situations, the way they interact with the world is completely different. The book is split into 16 chapters that explore these ideas, pitting Albert’s more philosophical leanings against Jack’s frat boy desires. The struggle that Precht has here is that the characters themselves buckle a bit under the weight of big ideas. The writer peppers in flashbacks to give us context about who these characters are, but they do little to engender any sympathy from the reader. So the book ends up reading a bit more like a debate than an actual story at certain points, as Precht’s goals for the book as a whole don’t necessarily always jibe with the narrative as it’s presented. You’re not going to see yourself in this book, and that’s okay. But it will force you to consider these viewpoints as they relate to your own life.

And Precht isn’t alone on trying to communicate these ideas. Danny Luckert leaves his indelible mark on this one, delivering strong linework juxtaposed with some more experimental moments. It’s no small task because Precht’s characters can tend to be a bit chatty so Luckert dials back on his backgrounds when he needs to, to put greater focus on his characters. Flashbacks are presented mostly in color while the present is mostly in shades of black, grey and white. It’s a flip on expectation that breaks up the book really well and easily communicates just how dire the situation is. The linework comes across similar to early Jamie McKelvie (particularly the first volume of Phonogram) but I was particularly impressed with Luckert ability to slip into some panels that were almost more Ben Templesmith-ian in nature. Templesmith’s work has always gone hand in hand with horror and Luckert is able to bring that out when the narrative calls for a bit of a shift.

Tethered is a heady book. It’s breaking from the expectations that the zombie genre usually invites and asks readers to look inward and self-reflect. While Precht does get in his own way a little, overriding his own voice occasionally with Ernest Hemingway quotes and a bit of overwriting, this is an ambitious debut. And it certainly helps that Luckert’s art is particularly easy on the eyes. While not all readers are looking for a philosophical debate in their comic books, it's important for art to challenge readers and open them up to new ideas. If nothing else, Precht and company do that in a genre that most have left for dead.

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