Best Shots Advance Reviews: THE SHADOW/BATMAN #1, ASTONISHER #1

Astonisher #1
Credit: John Cassaday (Lion Forge)
Credit: Dynamite/DC

The Shadow/Batman #1
Written by Steve Orlando
Art by Giovanni Timpano and Flavio Dispenza
Lettering by Taylor Esposito
Published by Dynamite Entertainment/DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The Dark Knight and the Shadow That Walks collide once again in the debut of The Shadow/Batman #1. Standing as a semi-sequel to Steve Orlando and Scott Snyder’s first outing with the pulp legend and the superhero contemporary that he inspired, this debut puts Batman as the outsider as he and his son Damian stumble upon a “generation of crime.” While the first series with the two heroes did a bang-up job of intertwining their histories, The Shadow/Batman takes a much more active approach, allowing Bruce to do some honest-to-goodness detective work as he, Damian, and the Shadow grow closer to the nefarious Silent Seven. Backed by rich lore thanks to Dynamite Entertainment's commitment to preserving classic pulp heroes and dynamic, boldly colored artwork from Giovanni Timpano and Flavio Dispenza, The Shadow/Batman #1 is the best of both dark, brooding worlds.

It is midnight on New Year’s Eve in New York City, and Professor Pyg has come to play. Opening with a ghoulishly fun set piece given a real energy by Timpano’s layouts and character blocking, Steve Orlando instantly establishes the kind of over-the-top tone he will be working with throughout this debut issue. But beyond the banter, which includes some choice Damian and Alfred sass, Orlando really gets both the action and character moments required for a good story and he expresses just how well he does throughout this debut.

Yet for all that action and banter, Orlando never once allows the characters to become one-note or flat. Even the Shadow, a character that is usually defined by his aloofness and brooding facade, is given something akin to an emotional arc in this debut. Starting with a mournful, nearly wordless panel grid detailing the funeral of his beloved Margo Lane, Orlando knocks the usually unflappable Shadow off his game and then doubles down on it as he faces the compellingly insane Professor Pyg. Thanks to the strong foundation provided by the Shadow’s history, Orlando has delivered a case tailor-made for Batman and the rest of the heroes, featuring plenty of outlandish characters to work with and the snappy dialogue to make it all gel into one irrepressibly cool slice of modern superhero noir.

Speaking of cool, Giovanni Timpano and Flavio Dispenza really go for it during this debut issue, giving Orlando’s script a punkish, almost watercolor like look that fits the mean streets of New York City and Gotham like a glove. No stranger to pulp legends, having just wrapped a Lone Ranger/Green Hornet team-up, Timpano leans into the wraith-like nature of the Shadow and the square-jawed determination of Batman, providing plenty of eye grabbing hero shots of the two between the Dollotron chaos of the opening scene and the intimate scenes between Bruce and Alfred at Wayne Manor. Dispenza never really gets to break out of the grayscale and heavily shadowed color palette of the artwork, aside from a few splashes of color in Robin’s costume and the Shadow’s trademark blood red scarf, but that darkness works well for the story, instead of making it look muddy like some modern noir comics. A special shoutout should also go to letterer Taylor Esposito who provides hilarious, but very much in-character word balloons for our heroes.

Superhero noir is a strange beast, but The Shadow/Batman #1 and its talented creative team pull together a debut that makes it look easy. Armed with wit, history, and two timeless leading men, Steve Orlando, Giovanni Timpano, Taylor Esposito, and Flavio Dispenza see and raise Orlando’s first team-up as it throws down weirder villains, a boy assassin, and a vast empire of crime to dismantle, all for our reading pleasure. Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot by nature, and the evil that lurks in their hearts is known, but The Shadow/Batman #1 looks to make the bad guys afraid the dark all over again.

Credit: Pop Mhan (Lion Forge)

Astonisher #1
Written by Alex de Campi
Art by Pop Mhan and Jessica Kholinne
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by Lion Forge
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The biggest flaw of Astonisher #1 is its familiarity. The Catalyst Prime superhero universe has followed heavily in the well-trodden footsteps of superhero universes that have come before it, and Astonisher #1’s genius billionaire playboy Magnus Attarian is probably the protagonist from whom you can draw the most straightforward line from point A to point B. Astonisher #1 is a well-executed book from Alex de Campi, and easily the most beautifully illustrated title of the Catalyst Prime line so far thanks to artist Pop Mhan and colorist Jessica Kholinne, but in this week’s debut, the specter of more familiar irresponsible tech moguls with difficult family lives and bad reputations looms unpleasantly large.

In Astonisher #1, de Campi does an excellent job building a rich and well-developed cast of characters in an environment that fits seamlessly into the extended Catalyst Prime universe. The undercurrents of the issue unrelated to the meteor are some of the most compelling - Magnus’ girlfriend Sasha, who could easily have been written as any number of quickly-forgotten girlfriends of playboy-focused comic books past, comes across as charming and relatable, thanks to little details from de Campi and the soft and expressive art and colors from Mhan and Kholinne. Magnus’ brother Drew’s insinuation that Magnus could use his newfound powers to cure his wife’s unspecified mental health issues is, in terms of plot, the most interesting thread de Campi introduces in this week’s debut, but it comes in the book’s final panels, a fleeting moment that may not be enough to hook you in month-to-month if you get too hung up on Magnus’ similarity to other caped crusaders.

Astonisher #1 is a good comic book, just not the most exciting comic book. Its art is beautiful; Pop Mhan’s soft lines somehow make the moments of body horror even more grim and unsettling, and Kholinne’s hazy colors give the issue a sort of hazy and far-away feeling befitting of a tale featured on exploring the tangled and troubled planes of the mind. Everything seems just out of focus, a feeling undoubtedly familiar to many who struggle with depression, anxiety or PTSD as Magnus and the man who turns into the ‘monster of the week’ do. There are rich, complex stories to find in explorations of mental health and superpowers related to it, but at the end of the issue, I found myself wishing they were being explored outside the context of a superhero archetype I feel like I’ve already seen too many times before.

As a franchise, Catalyst Prime is an exciting enterprise: a superhero line committed from the outset to exploring a more diverse range of characters, and united from its very first issue by a cohesive origin story. On an individual basis many of its titles have been superb (no pun intended), particularly Noble. Astonisher #1 exposes the conceptual weaknesses - its heavy reliance on familiar tropes - without, at least in this issue, the visual quirks of Accell’s take on superspeed to make up for it.

Alex de Campi is a great writer with a track record of handling emotionally tumultuous content, and the idea of her handling stores focused on mental illness is deeply reassuring - I have no doubts that when de Campi and Mhan get into the meat of Astonisher’s plot, it will be a smart and intriguing book. As a single issue, though, Astonisher #1 is hamstrung by its need to focus on introducing us to a cast of characters you’ll likely feel like you’ve already met time and time again, on the page and on the screen.

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