Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN - DAWNBREAKER #1, AVENGERS #672, MIS(H)ADRA, More

Marvel Comics October 2017 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Batman: Dawnbreaker #1
Written by Sam Humphries
Art by Ethan Van Sciver and Jason Wright
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

It’s for the best that Bruce Wayne never got any proper superpowers.

Three tie-ins deep, and that seems to be the core thesis of DC’s Dark Nights series. Bruce’s gifts of technology, physique, and finance are things that were not able to coalesce all at once and suddenly make Bruce Wayne into an enhanced human. Every aspect of Bruce that is instrumental to informing his power over others comes from a degree of experience and growth, despite obvious early advantages. But with Dark Nights, each tie-in has displayed a Bruce who acquires powers in ways not totally unlike his Justice League comrades, through destiny, cosmic intervention, or some cruel, inevitable fate - but without any of refinement and discipline that has reined Batman in as a hero, rather than as a malevolent force of nature. With writing that focuses more on character than progression, Batman: The Dawnbreaker presents what is likely the best characterization of the series thus far, if hampered slightly by some contrivances of the plot.

Hal Jordan’s willpower in comparison to Bruce Wayne’s is the topic of a perhaps unsurprising multitude of comic book fan forums. A general consensus that fans reach is that when the Green Lantern ring was searching for a host, Hal possessed the willpower needed as well as the need for direction. Bruce’s path was already set in his response to that fateful and oft-recreated night when his parents were senselessly gunned down. What writer Sam Humphries wastes little time in proposing is a scenario where the ring finds Bruce immediately after that murder, where his will is set to seek justice before he has any concrete path. Without hesitation or thought, the suddenly superpowered Bruce pursues the murderer and commands his ring to kill him. As the Green Lantern ring prohibits the use of lethal force, the ring denies him this request… at first. Under the strain of Bruce’s enormous force of will, the very properties of the ring are curdled on the spot - the resulting feedback of “lethal force enabled” is chilling.

And it is unfortunately just the beginning - this dark Lantern quickly begins to murder criminals with ring-generated eldritch monstrosities, or sometimes simply drops them into the cold vacuum of space. More than any of these acts of violence or his wholesale obliteration of the Green Lantern Corps, it’s Bruce’s hesitation-free killing of Commissioner Gordon that is most shocking and upsetting, but all of which paints the Dawnbreaker as a sort of corrupted Nietzschean Übermensch, calling to mind the following quote explaining the will to power: "Above all, a living thing wants to discharge its strength."

Where the plot and art fall short is in some of its contrivances. There isn’t much explanation given for why Bruce’s new costume looks like a Borg-assimilated Batman. And the reason that Earth-32’s Bruce Wayne becomes Batman the Dawnbreaker is thinner, as Bruce just seems to recall that bats live in the cave under his house. Obviously, Bruce Wayne is going to become a Batman, but a little more scaffolding would have made it seem less random before he goes into his homebrewed Lantern oath, one which reads a little cringy. At some point, the Dawnbreaker receives a facial injury that leaves a noticeable scar, but it just randomly appears at the end of three splash pages.

That said, Van Sciver’s art is unrelenting. Apart from the splash pages, not a single page features even panels. Everything is skewed, which definitely adds to both the unstable atmosphere pervading the plot and the omnipresent sense that this world is not right. The ring-generated demons are an ever-present and visually captivating component of the issue as well, looking like classic Spawn demons with more fangs and outreached claws. This is where colorist Jason Wright gives us a clinic on how a color - in this case, green - can be radically changed by the context in which the color appears. The first panel to prominently feature the color green is when Bruce is approached by the ring, with the color bringing hope and light to the darkness, but the very second panel of the ring begins to deconstructs this. The green is no longer an illuminating force, but an emanating force - a force of power. A living thing that wants to discharge its strength. That green light when harnessed by Bruce against criminals also loses that illuminating quality, instead opting for an almost sloppy glow more indicative of radiation. The matted-out greens that follow Bruce and color his demons throughout the rest of the issue lose the glowing, light-up quality entirely, and instead have a more toxic and gaseous quality. The Dawnbreaker doesn’t bring light. He initiates blackout.

Tweaking a backstory and then integrating it into the already-established DC universe is a lot to accomplish in a single issue, and despite the slight missteps of the issue, Dawnbreaker largely delivers on what it sets out to do. Readers will undoubtedly walk away with a solid understanding of this corrupted Green Lantern as a character and a real sense of his threat to the DC Universe. This is completely reinforced by art which never paints this dark Lantern as imposing and overcharged by will, with coloring that reflects the way the twisted personality of this Batman is corrupted by and then corrupts the ring he wears. This tie-in might be the grimmest of the Dark Knight origins so far, but it will definitely satisfy readers of the series, or even readers just invested in Hal Jordan/Bruce Wayne debates.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Avengers #672
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Jesus Saiz
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It’s the superhero equivalent to running into your ex on the street in Avengers #672. Mark Waid and Jesus Saiz kick off this new arc with a straightforward but intriguing tale of two teams coming together for the common good, despite not exactly liking each other at the moment. Tied together by certain members of their ranks studying a satellite that has taken months to get into position, both the Champions and Avengers are brought together to halt a runaway meteor. Though this sounds like standard superhero fare, Mark Waid keeps things interesting with plenty of solid character work and an undercurrent of strangeness below the plot’s surface. Back all that up with clear, expressive pencils and colors from Jesus Saiz and you have a solid start for this tense team-up between the old and the new.

Stopping a single meteor might seem like small potatoes for teams like the Avengers and Champions, but as Mark Waid shows, this story may go deeper than just a simple rock from space. Opening with a Doctor Who-esque cold open which finds Peter Parker warning readers of an impending doom only to warp out of view, his speech corrupted into creepy, sketchy word balloons from Cory Petit. As he comes back into view, we now see the mask of Miles Morales, completing Peter’s warning of the Earth only having minutes to live.

But the weirdness doesn't stop there. As both teams reluctantly split into splinter squads to impede the comet’s path, strange things keep happening to throw them off-balance. Things like the giant meteor blinking out of the Wasp’s view. Or like Hercules’ hammer vanishing mid-battle without a trace. Calling to mind the small scares of his Mr. Fear arc in Daredevil, Mark Waid shows that he is still more than able to deliver chills as well as thrills.

But beyond these hints at intrigue, Waid’s character work still shines here. Throwing off the preachy tone of his solo Champions stories, Waid gets back to basics with a giant problem bearing down on the planet and the big damn heroes standing in its way. But while the plot offers a seemingly simple obstacle for the heroes, Waid never lets up on the tension each team has toward one another. In particular, Ms. Marvel and Falcon butt heads as the respective leaders of their teams, and when you have a one-time Captain America barking orders over your head, it’s not hard to see why that might be. We often hear about the need for “realism” in comic books, but the only realism I want from heroes are real emotions, motivations and points of view, and Avengers #672 has that in spades.

Artists Jesus Saiz brings it all home by leaning into the emotion that Waid provides in the script, keeping most of the scenes focused tight on the characters and their expressions throughout the issue. A major upgrade from his rigid Captain America issues, Saiz adapts well to the high-speed world of these superhero teams, keeping the colors tonally in sync with their characters. For example, as the story switches between the G.I.R.L. HQ and Champions HQ, Saiz keeps the lighting separate, the G.I.R.L. HQ lit like a dimly lit kitchen and the Champions HQ as a sleek, fluorescent high-tech rec center in order to keep the reader clear on what they are seeing and when. Though his action scenes could use a little more dynamic movement and a little less static posing, Jesus Saiz gets a well deserved “Most Improved” award in Avengers #672.

Avengers #672 is what happens when superheroes stop being polite and start getting real. Fingers crossed they can put aside their differences and have a day unlike any other once again by standing together and facing down whatever else Mark Waid and company plan to throw at them next.

Credit: Sean Murphy/Matt Hollingsworth/Todd Klein (DC Comics)

Batman: White Knight #1
Written by Sean Murphy
Art by Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Sean Murphy is an exciting talent, and he has been for years. DC decided to give the writer/artist a chance to tell his own Batman story, and it's hard not to see the appeal. Murphy’s unique style is a match made in heaven for the noir grit of the Dark Knight’s world. But can the script stand up? Batman: White Knight is bit of a flip on the regular Batman/Joker dichotomy that sees the Clown Prince of Crime as the savior of Gotham and public perception on his side. Unfortunately, getting the characters to that place is a clumsy affair, and the overall concept might hew a little too close to an old arc from Legends of the Dark Knight to be considered truly original.

One thing is clear from the get-go: Sean Murphy was made for Gotham City. His work is blends seamlessly with the tone of Batman’s world, so it’s not hard to see why DC would want him on a project like this. For one, Murphy has always been a master of setting, so while you don’t necessarily get a sense of exactly what how Gotham is laid out or what parts of the city characters are in, you don’t really need them. It feels and looks like Gotham, and that’s enough as the plot is barreling forward. It’s not always setting as much as it's the mood he’s able to convey, though. A scene with Jack Napier sitting in a room surrounded by Batman paraphernalia is eerie and unsettling, drawing your eye with incredible detail and composition. Matt Hollingsworth’s colors also go a long way to helping communicate the tone of the story, painting Batman’s scenes in a red that screams off the page in comparison to the scenes that follow.

Murphy might also be one of the few artists to make vehicle chases in comic books compelling, in part because he draws really awesome vehicles. His Batmobile is a surefire standout here. And in a story that pits two of fiction’s greatest rivals against each other, Murphy deftly adapts their relationship into his visual language as well. Murphy’s script called for a more austere and brutal vision of Batman, so the Dark Knight is presented as a hulking figure that towers menacingly over a prim, polished Jack Napier. From the opening pages, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be the kind of Batman story you’re used to seeing.

But what about the story itself? Well, if the Joker being cured and going good sounds familiar to you, you might have read J.M. DeMatteis’ “Going Sane” story from Legends of the Dark Knight. But at this juncture, Murphy’s story only bears a broad resemblance to that one. A lot of Batman stories hinge on the question of “who needs who more, the hero or the villains?” and no character has a more intimate relationship with that dichotomy than the Joker. Murphy leans into that a bit, but the way he frames his story makes getting to that “Joker goes good” premise feel clumsy. This is Batman who seemingly will stop at nothing to get to the Joker, but the text goes back and forth on whether or not that fervor is justified.

According to the characters, Joker has “been terrorizing Gotham for years,” but they claim they’ve only been able to convict him of armed robbery. Batman isn’t officially part of the police but Murphy frames his assault on the Joker as similar to real-world instances of police brutality, right down to Joker’s final words before passing out being “...can’t...breathe.” Then with a tried-and-true means of Batman exposition lays out the two sides of the debate with a TV debate that has one pundit decrying “SJWs” and the other defending the Joker. It’s hard to know what Murphy intends to actually say with this work because it’s so generally clumsy. Getting the characters to this place feel really inorganic even if this is an Elseworlds story. And because the entire issue is ostensibly a flashback, we don’t know what the driving force of the main story really is. We just have a notion of what got us to the first scene.

There’s a lot in Murphy’s first issue that begs the reader to suspend their disbelief past the breaking point, and that’s where the story doesn’t really work. The inaction of characters that obviously have a problem with this Batman’s methods seems bizarre and out-of-place. The parallels to real-life police brutality are real and textual, but somewhat untethered. Murphy has presented us with something, but he might have done just as well to drop us into the story and let us find out what got us there as the main plot progressed. However, Murphy and Hollingsworth’s artistic contributions are really a joy to behold. A single page that basically sums up Jack Napier’s backstory is succinct and beautiful. The action is visceral and the characters are expressive. There’s a lot to like here, so hopefully the story itself catches up to the artistry on display.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Astonishing X-Men #4
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Carlos Pacheco, Rafael Fonteriz and Rain Beredo
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Make love, not war.

That’s the mission statement of Astonishing X-Men #4, which takes a breather from the X-Men’s battles through the Astral Plane, as our heroes stop to think… what if they could actually just enjoy themselves for once?

It’s a strange - perhaps subversive - angle to take on superhero comics, which are known for their over-the-top fisticuffs. But it winds up making for some winning storytelling by Charles Soule, as he continues to write the best X-Men characterization in years. While the artwork from Carlos Pacheco feels a little anemic compared to some of the heavy-hitters this book has seen previously, this is still a strong showing for what is essentially a breather issue.

I’ll admit, when I first heard about the rotating artist-friendly premise of Astonishing X-Men, I was a bit skeptical - but while the Astral Plane has not only proven to be a natural fit for the ever-shifting visuals, but Soule uses this setting to probe his characters’ innermost thoughts. If you can imagine it in the Astral Plane, you can achieve it - so when you’re a selfish killer like Mystique and Fantomex, that means you have a universe of hedonism to pursue rather than saving the world. Or when you’re star-crossed lovers Rogue and Gambit… you suddenly have the opportunity to finally connect. It’s a poignant story angle, but it’s one that’s a knockout without throwing a single punch - it’s an idea that makes these characters especially endearing as they carry this story without, say, a Wolverine.

Of course, Logan still has a role to play in the book’s B-plot, which does bring the requisite superhero action to the mix. With a possessed Logan wreaking havoc, with Psylocke, Bishop and Angel being the only ones able to stop him. And it’s a testament to Soule that he’s able to make the matchup seem actually even - Psylocke gets to use all of her skills as a psychic ninja to keep the runaway Wolverine away from her comatose friends, while Soule’s take on Bishop might be the most coherent I’ve seen on him in… ever? Admittedly, Soule sometimes gets a little overblown with some of the narration (I could have probably gone without hearing about the “slop” of guts hitting the ground when he talked about Logan), but for the most part, it’s very solid stuff.

Unfortunately, Carlos Pacheco’s art is super-clean, but at the point of almost sterility. At first, his work seems to blend in a little with that of Jim Cheung, but he and inker Rafael Fonteriz aren’t the most energetic with their actual rendering. Because there’s no intensity to the lighting and shadows, it’s hard to pull off actual mood, particularly in a place like the Astral Realm, so the imagery feels like it’s pulling its punches. There are some beats they pull off magnificently - particularly Bishop’s explosive landing after being thrown out of a skyscraper - but other flourishes, like the cutaway to Mystique and Fantomex dancing together in the Astral Realm, that is played so straight it can’t help but look a little goofy. Colorist Rain Beredo does great work with the real-world scenes in particular, giving the proceedings a Marte Garcia-style energy, but when the art team is coming after superstars like Jim Cheung and Ed McGuinness, it’s hard for this installment not to seem a little pale in comparison.

But when you take this issue and read it alongside the preceding three installments, one chapter with lower energy is just a speed bump. What’s most important about Astonishing X-Men is that Soule has done a magnificent job at juggling his team of mutants, and more importantly, knows how they work together and what has made them so beloved by readers for years. And in that regard, this might not be the strongest chapter of Astonishing X-Men, but you better believe I still can’t wait to see what happens next.

Credit: Gallery 13

Mis(h)adra OGN
Written and Illustrated by Iasmin Omar Ata
Published by Gallery 13
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Mis(h)adra is a gut-wrenching exploration of chronic illness, a staggering and beautifully illustrated debut graphic novel that captures the emotional and physical trauma that an illness requiring months or years or a lifetime of treatment can bring. In Mis(h)adra, writer and illustrator Iasmin Omar Ata specifically explores their struggles with epilepsy, a neurological condition still often misunderstood as a condition exclusively caused by flashing lights and sounds to this day. Mis(h)adra is a difficult and sometimes gruesome read, but a necessary one, for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of a friend or family’s struggles or even just looking for a work that reflects their own struggles with illness.

Ata captures the haunting nature of their epilepsy with an eerie, sharp visual style; the semi-autobiographical lead character Isaac experiences his auras (a set of symptoms that can accompany seizures, often different from person to person) as sharp knives, each with a piercing eye that stares him down before his seizures. Ata’s depiction of neurological issues, and the mental health struggles that can accompany them, are haunting and authentic — the shadowy out-of-body experience that can accompany dissociation, the slow decline of a living space around you as you sink into a depression you can’t seem to drag yourself out of. Isaac’s struggles are set against the backdrop of a hectic college campus, and Ata does a stellar job building three distinct and well-developed worlds: Isaac’s waking life, populated with a cast of distinct and engaging characters who fade in and out with Isaac’s emotional state, the curious and almost supernatural transition moments between his auras and his seizures, and the moments of his seizures themselves.

Throughout Mis(h)adra, Ata doesn’t shy away from color, casting whole pages in eerie pinks and vibrant yellows to make clearer distinctions between Isaac’s mental state. They lean heavily on visual metaphors for Isaac’s struggle with his illness but at no point do they come across as ham-fisted or forced; instead, Ata is offering only an exploration of their own experiences, their struggles with family and friends who won’t, or simply can’t, conceptualize a medical condition that could have such a profound and inescapable impact on your day to day life. Their illustrative style is perfectly suited to this sort of tale, and Ata has an excellent sense for page layouts, exploring intricate visual spreads with intense emotional beats in a way that is never too complicated to decipher.

As grim as this review may cast Mis(h)adra as, Ata’s tale is ultimately deeply hopeful. Too often explorations of illness, particularly chronic illness or conditions that may be treatable but incurable, paint perseverance in the face of the hand you’ve been dealt by genetics or your environment as the only goal: don’t be a burden, do your best, try your hardest to be healthy. If you work hard enough, if you’re a good enough person, your illness can fade into the background, forgotten. In Mis(h)adra, through Isaac, Ata is frank about the emotional toll living with a person with a condition like epilepsy can have on those around you, but also unapologetic about the toll it takes on your ability to make it through day-to-day life.

There are times when it simply seems easier to give up, to stop treatment, to give in to your illness — easier on you, on your wallet, on those around you. Easier not to claw your way through insurance bureaucracy and disbelieving friends and family, through pervasive rumors about the kind of person you must be because of what illness has done to your ability to do something as simple to show up to class, easier to push everyone away because when you can’t trust your family to help you through a situation as inescapable as a medical condition, who can you trust? Mis(h)adra doesn’t cast believing in yourself as the one tried and true way to overcome these struggles, but through Jo, the woman Isaac is introduced to early in the book who worms her way into his life for reasons he can’t quite decipher, Ata explores how being open and frank about these situations makes coping with them substantially easier, with the help of others who may be more familiar with our experiences than we initially suspect.

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