Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN: THE MERCILESS #1, SILVER SURFER #14

Marvel Comics August 2017 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Batman: The Merciless #1
Written by Peter J. Tomasi
Art by Francis Manapul
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Batman: The Merciless #1 is an issue that, on the surface, accomplishes what the other Dark Nights: Metal tie-ins have: introducing to readers a new Nightmare Batman, connecting him essentially to a non-Batman Justice League member, pushes an aspect of Bruce Wayne’s personality to a degree that corrupts him, and then establishes its titular corrupted Batman as one of a slew of villains who could warrant their own world-threatening arc. The process by which writer Peter J. Tomasi accomplishes these ends, however, leaves a lot to be desired as far as characterization is concerned, and leaves readers with an inconsistent plot that, through the sheer number of speaking characters, attempts to accomplish a lot, but through its resolution and closing moments of an audience-betraying twist make this a book actually accomplishes very little beyond “Look at this Batman. Isn’t he strong? He has cool armor now.” The inconsistent storytelling isn’t helped by Francis Manapul’s art, which despite flashes of brilliance, is sometimes disorienting and displays action sequences which seem more random than sequential.

The issue opens on Bruce Wayne screaming in anguish as he holds Wonder Woman’s broken body in his arms amidst a battlefield of corpses on Earth-12 before immediately jumping into Earth-0 on the next page. In the War Room, A.R.G.U.S., S.H.A.D.E., the D.E.O., Task Force X, and the military are collaborating to deal with the threat of the Nightmare Batmen in an odd change in the chronology of these tie-ins. It’s the first time that events from the actual core series are essential to the events depicted in the tie-in. Part of this feels like Tomasi trying to push through the exposition to get to his big moments at the end, but it leaves the issue lacking in the rich sense of characterization that made the previous versions of Bruce Wayne so tragic, and leaves this iteration of the character one-dimensional and strange. The plot also appears to put a lot of stock in the coalition opposing what we learn is the Merciless, though like the Drowned, this book stops short of naming him that. This focus on characters that ultimately do not matter leads to a payoff of Batman as the God of War forcing them to worship him, but takes up so much space in the plot that its members are better characterized than Bruce. But since there is absolutely no chance of anything Mister Bones doing being of consequence in this tie-in, it’s hard to be invested in the infighting government agencies.

We learn that this iteration of Batman donned Ares’ helmet to avenge Wonder Woman, and through a Pop-Up Video-esque visual onslaught of narration, come to understand that this Batman refuses to abide by the “no kill” rule and more or less adopts Ares’ personality. While lettering and sound effects were handled solidly in previous issues, they wind up being overbearing. Midway through the comic as the Batman Who Laughs is recruiting the Merciless, there is a four panel stretch a that includes a combined total of twelve sound effects or blocks of narration, which is frustrating as it distracts from one of the best artistic stretches that Manapul has in the book. This midway point is also where Tomasi is at his best, with his references to Snyder’s "New 52" Batman run being direct but played for subtlety and intrigue. And whether a choice of Tomasi or Manapul, the demonic Robins carrying books like How to Destroy the Universe is a fun moment and is emblematic of the tone that makes this event as exciting and fresh as it has been.

The twist at the end of the issue is where the issue is at its worst. The Merciless is sitting on a throne and etching a drawing of Batman and Wonder Woman into a stone tablet. Another machine gun volley of inconsistently overlaid narration reveals that Diana wasn’t actually dead when we saw her before and that Bruce, in the time it took him to grab her, hold her in his arms, scream in anguish, and grab Ares’ helmet, never noticed that she was merely, as the text states, “stunned.” Once Bruce puts on the helmet, we are told and not shown, Diana reached for it and he struck her down, killing her. It’s frustrating because the narration feels like a different character than what we are seeing, and it reads like such a last minute twist to show readers that the one thing we thought was keeping the reader tethered to a sense of humanity was actually never there, despite some of the narration earlier and despite this Batman’s craft nights. It solidifies the character as one dimensional and makes a lot of what was happening with him in the comic cheaper.

Manapul’s artistic contributions have a quality shift between their focus on the Merciless and their focus on the military coalition. The Merciless panels are unquestionably his and the issue’s highlights, with the coloring being particularly well done when portraying anything archaic. Colors in the more modern scenes feel random at times, with background colors changing on a panel by panel basis and backgrounds in general being sparse or empty. Fight scenes are also confusing, with some panels lacking in a sense of flow in action. It isn’t always clear how bodies physically went from one panel to the next and the choices appear arbitrary.

What is perhaps most frustrating is the fact that it lacks the sense of connection to the Justice League member it is indebted to - in this case, Wonder Woman - and lacks the tragic elements that made previous deviations from those members in the other tie-ins more acceptable. It’s sneaky with it’s big moments and though it has a clear intent of emotional impact, the attempts it makes are too artificial and convenient. It feels more like a comic book for readers to collect and read out of a sense of completionism than anything inherent to the book itself.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Silver Surfer #14
Written by Dan Slott
Art by Michael and Laura Allred
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

All things must come to an end, and so endeth Dan Slott and the Allreds’ run on Silver Surfer, a series filled with silliness, sentiment and sci-fi spectacle. In many ways, while this issue caps off this team’s underrated run, it feels more like an epilogue after last issue’s ugly cry-inducing emotion, as without the Surfer’s companion Dawn Greenwood, Slott and the Allreds are forced to leverage their sci-fi, time travel angle to tie things together.

While many people have made the comparisons to Dan Slott’s well-documented love of Doctor Who, at its core, his run on Silver Surfer has always read as a love story to me, with new character Dawn Greenwood utilizing the sort of manic pixie dream girl tropes to get the staid Surfer out of his stuffy groove. But her own quirks aside, it was Dawn who allowed the Silver Surfer to see the universe through fresh eyes, with artist Michael Allred using his pop art virtuosity to show off the cosmic side of Marvel in a way we’ve never seen before. Yet the entire universe proved to be too small a playpen for Slott and company to operate within, and so this series has dabbled in time travel before - and in so doing, has expanded the scale of this series exponentially.

But like I said before - all things must come to an end, and that’s been a theme in Slott’s work as he’s wrapped up this run. First, Dawn’s trip across the spaceways came at a poignant cost - not being able to say goodbye to her father, Reg, who died while she was gone. And when Dawn and the Surfer went back in time to make things right, they inadvertently went back before the beginning of our own universe, forcing them to live out the rest of their lives in a sort of trippy psychedelic retirement in space. It was that previous issue that really laid the emotional heart of this series bare, showing the true cost of a love that transcends time and space - namely, showing how the Surfer would react when his all-too-human partner passes on.

With that lengthy explanation in mind, Slott and the Allreds take great pains to wrap things up with sci-fi wizardry and a happy ending, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this issue would have been better pared down and added to the previous issue as an extended finale. It was one thing to see the Surfer live out an entire lifetime with Dawn - after all, it’s been their dynamic that’s been the engine behind this series - but watching him watch over his own lifetime as a time-traveling wraith starts to strain credulity. (Think about it: If the Surfer changed this much over, say, a year’s worth of comic book time, would he even remember Dawn after millennia? With all these lifetimes at his fingertips, how could we ever expect him to be even remotely the same character? And for a character even as morally gray as the Surfer has been as he’s transitioned from Herald of Galactus to star-crossing hero, there’s not one atrocity he wouldn’t have risked everything to avert over the course of all those years?)

This suspension of disbelief aside, you’ll need a pretty firm recollection of the entirety of the series for Slott and the Allreds’ gambit to fully pay off, with the idea of resurrecting Dawn and her extended family in a way that doesn’t quite feel organic. (It’s an interesting philosophical question - namely, is a holographic version of Dawn the same as the real thing, the person who had decades with the Surfer before dying?) But while I think this finale issue doesn’t quite reach the emotional heights of the previous issue - because honestly, you’d be hard-pressed to top Dawn’s goodbye to the Surfer, or the Surfer’s board’s reaction to her passing - Slott does cap off everything with a sweet image, showing a subtle but poignant chance to the Surfer that shows how much Dawn has affected him.

But that all said, as witty as Slott has been with his plotting, Michael and Laura Allred have truly made the book their own, and in that regard, Silver Surfer ends its run on a high note, bouncing between the cosmic and the down-to-earth with equal energy and aplomb. There is a lot going on with the script in this book, but the Allreds are actually able to make this work for them, making each of their pages look diverse despite so many different actions and settings going on. While a double-page splash featuring the Surfer tailing Galactus is a real highlight of the book, the Allreds also nail the quieter moments, particularly a moment where the Surfer has some rare shadow as the sun reflects off his back, as he reveals how he’s made Dawn part of the fabric of our very universe. And the finale image is about as pitch-perfect as one could hope for a series finale, and one that should make the entire creative team proud.

Ultimately, Silver Surfer might have been overlooked in favor of Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man work, but there was something effervescent about this book that I think many people didn’t recognize - myself included. There was a whimsy and a burden-free optimism that defined this series, even counting its more heartbreaking moments. Yet at its core, Silver Surfer was a story about an unlikely relationship, about the kind of wish fulfillment that I think superhero comic books typically ignore in favor of the punches-and-powers types of fantasies. There was a deeper soul to this series, underneath the wild artwork and the clever twists. And while this finale might be imperfect in that regard, we all get to mourn Dawn Greenwood, as the Silver Surfer makes his last flight with a truly wonderful creative team.

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