Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN: THE DEVASTATOR #1, WHITE KNIGHT #2, CAPTAIN AMERICA #695, More

Marvel Comics December 2017 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics

 

Credit: DC Comics

Batman: The Devastator #1
Written by Frank Tieri and James Tynion
Art by Tony S. Daniel, Danny Miki, and Tomeu Morey
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

 

You’ll be forgiven for being caught off-guard by Batman: The Devastator #1. Like the previous Dark Nights: Metal tie-ins, its title character and the threat he poses is so grand and over-the-top that it would be an excellent multi-issue arc in its own right. What you probably weren’t expecting was a comic that plays masterfully with readers’ feelings while delivering a cross between the early stages of a zombie outbreak story with a dread-inducing and unpleasant body horror plot reminiscent of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, a film which, interestingly enough, ends with lines that wouldn’t be out of place among the Dark Nights: Metal mythosphere: “We can mutate the whole world into metal. We can make the world rust till it crumbles into the cosmos.” While both Frank Tieri’s plotting and James Tynion’s script have some weak moments in terms of writing, the highs that they both reach redeem it as a comic worth checking out. With Tony S. Daniel’s pencils, Danny Miki’s inks, and Tomes Morey’s colors all converging to form a visual product that is consistently strong, there’s a lot to love in this book.

The comic begins in the present, with a splash close-up of Superman’s face, eyes hollowed with lightning, as what readers soon learn is Earth -1’s Doomsday virus-infected Bruce Wayne narrates. We return to Clark in our final panels of the issue. What we don’t return to is the scene that follows: a fight between Lobo and the Devastator. While the fight visually appealing and few can argue that it’s always nice to see Lobo, we never get much in the way of context, and the whole thing feels like an exercise in displaying just how strong this Batman is, a strange choice because later scenes better display his physical strength while also showing that physical harm is far from the most threatening aspect of the character. That’s saved for the next sequence in the comic.

Taking place a day before, the Earth-0 centric bulk of the comic that comes next is far and away the best part of this issue. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are talking about the six cities that have mysteriously gone dark. While the audience knows that the Dark Batmen are the reason behind these six blackouts, the characters don’t. The tension that presents is compounded by the fact that the reader knows that, because of the overall narrative inherent to the tie-ins, Metropolis is destined to fall in this issue. It gives a palpable sense of suspense to these two civilians interacting, with Jimmy representing a more cynical outlook of reading conspiracy theories and succumbing to fear, while Lois remains resolutely optimistic, something expected with how much time she spends with Superman. If anything, Lois’s idealism comes across initially as overly hopeful, but the direction that the plot takes makes what would otherwise be annoying come off as essential. The art team deserves recognition for this brief sequence as well, as minor touches on facial expressions expertly portray the outlooks the two characters have.

When Lois then sees Bruce Wayne, she makes the mistake in thinking it is her Bruce Wayne. She soon learns that this Bruce comes from a world where Superman snapped, eventually killing his Lois Lane — and in this world, Batman could only best this detached and genuinely frightening Superman by injecting himself with the Doomsday virus, killing and impaling the Man of Steel in what is probably the best drawn scene of the entire comic. Superman’s death is framed with an air of religiosity, and though this Superman is clearly a villain, his death has a martyr-like quality to it and really feels like the last gasp of hope leaving Earth -1. Morey’s colors in this scene go a long way in making the panel something more than the bleak grimdarkness that it could have easily devolved into. Daniel’s framing in the scene is interesting as well, with Superman clearly drawn in a way to invoke sadness while being positioned facing left and in opposition to the movement of the comic. After hearing this tale, Lois learns that she has been infected by the Doomsday virus, and through her, the rest of Metropolis, capitalizing on this Batman’s unrealized idea of turning the world into Superman-Killers. As Lois seals Jon away in a safe room in their apartment, she succumbs to the virus, presumably losing hope. It’s heartbreaking in a way that superhero comics often strive to be but seldom reach.

While the reverse linearity of the narrative is effective at saving the plot’s greatest emotional hits for the Lois-centric moments, its earlier and chronologically more recent story developments are largely forgotten by the end of the story. In fact, the weight of the Metropolis scenes is so great that even the Dark Batmen’s acquisition of the cosmic tuning fork and subsequent imprisonment of Superman feel less significant than Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and the rest of the civilian population of Metropolis turning into Doomsday hybrids as they lose hope that their hero will save them.

The script also inconsistently characterizes the titular corrupted Bruce Wayne. The moments where he is portrayed as a cynical stoic with an any-means-necessary approach to protection are genuinely great — it shows a Bruce Wayne that is still Bruce Wayne and not just a well-dressed Incredible Hulk knock-off. The problem is that some of the line choices are just baffling in this context. After waxing poetic about his new power and the inner pain he felt at feeling betrayed by his best friend, the Devastator says, “...it felt #$!% great.” For a comic that has such an emotional, character-rich story at its core, and one which had just spent several pages with an interestingly reflective Bruce, it comes from out of left field and feels like it serves a purpose of shock and edginess more than anything born from a character or necessitated by the plot. The script also has a little bit of sloppiness in Batman’s recounting of why he infected himself with the Doomsday virus. The narration starts as him talking with Lois, but the next page has the narration addressing Clark. Had the character been established as unhinged or obsessive as some of the other Dark Batmen, this would be seen as an obvious mental crack, but since there isn’t an indication that that is the case, it just feels like a weird break in consistency.

Like the best that these tie-ins have had to offer, this issue delivers its horror with an equal helping of melancholy. There’s a lot of complicated feels and tense atmosphere in the plot. Like the worst of these tie-ins, it has some odd choices in terms of what aspects of that plot it emphasizes and when. Of the tales of Dark Batmen that readers have seen thus far, this one is probably the one that could most easily expanded to a full arc of its own, and that makes the distance this plot travels and the weight that its emotional moments carry are that much more impressive. Strong art with a few standout moments will give readers moments to stop and appreciate everything that a panel is telling them beyond the narration or dialogue. In a lot of ways, the less impressive parts of this comic help make its soaring heights, for lack of a better word, devastating.

 

Credit: Marvel Comics

Captain America #695
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Chris Samnee and Matt Wilson
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

 

“....Legends never die.”

Captain America is back. No, not the evil Nazi one. The real Steve Rogers has returned to don the ol’ red, white and blue and reclaim his own legacy as part of Marvel’s “not really a reboot” reboot. Mark Waid and Chris Samnee are on the job, Marvel’s premier team for rehabilitating the public perception of just about any hero under their watch. But something’s amiss here. For all the controversy about Nick Spencer’s run with the Star-Spangled Avenger (this writer included), at least on some level he attempted to tell a story that hadn’t exactly been told. Waid and Samnee give us a story that feels like a classic Cap tale and serves as a palette cleanser for the last two years, but it hardly feels like enough.

Mark Waid’s career definitely stands up pretty well to the test of time, but it’s his collaborations with Samnee that stand head and shoulders above the rest in recent memory. The two men are able to cut straight to the heart of Marvel characters to provide definitive takes on them that are almost instantly timeless. But Captain America #695 feels unfortunately safe by those standards. There’s no urgency in Waid’s scripts, and he trades in the nostalgic storytelling tropes that come to easily to some Captain America writers.

A lot of that has to do with what Cap means as a character. As noted by Meg Downey in her piece, “Identity Crisis: How Secret Empire Missed Captain America’s Thematic Core,” Steve Rogers is a tough nut to crack because he represents an ideal that’s always changing. Secret Empire robbed the character of the foundation necessary to really allow Spencer to make a statement with his work. Now, Waid and Samnee have to reestablish that base. But that requires them to make declarative statements in their work about who Steve Rogers and Captain America are and what they stand for. And in a world where the mere presence of women and POC characters has the peanut gallery crying “SJW,” Waid and Samnee are comfortable only to take baby steps at this point.

So rather than have Steve confront the reality of his existence at this point, one that includes an evil doppelganger who has literally ruined his life and reputation, Waid and Samnee only dip their toes into establishing who he is: “The strong protect the weak.” The storytellers are really not setting the world on fire with that statement, and it’s a little disappointing. Punisher would say he stands for the same thing. So would Spider-Man. So would Iron Man. So would Doctor Doom. Captain America already gets a bad rep for being “boring” by comics fans new and old. While given Cap’s tumultuous recent storylines, I can understand the impulse to go full meat-and-potatoes superheroing, this really isn’t the best way to reintroduce the character because it doesn’t actually say anything about him.

Now Chris Samnee’s art, in tandem with Matt Wilson’s colors, is truly a joy to behold. Samnee’s linework is the Toth-ian ideal of the Marvel Universe and I am so, so here for it. As comic book art has progressed over the years and in some cases become overly detailed and realistic, “cartoony” has become a dirty word, but Samnee embraces it. There is extreme economy in his linework that ensures that he’s never doing too much with a page. Each panel is well composed, allowing him to give different weights to foreground and background characters. And he knows how to properly utilize his inks to bring balance to his compositions. Samnee is a world class talent and comics is lucky to have him. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to elevate a earnest plot that’s so dull it comes across as cheesy.

Waid and Samnee are too good not to figure this out. They’re going to have to push themselves as creators to break new ground with Captain America, a character who is more of an enigma than many realize. How do you bring to life a subjective ideal that means different things to different people? At a time filled with such divisiveness, who is Captain America a champion for? And what makes this creative team the ones qualified to make those sorts of definitive statements? Those are the questions that creators have to ask themselves. Those are the questions that have always gone into making Captain America comics - good ones, at least. This is a fine story, but it hasn’t set itself apart from the pack yet. Time will tell if Waid and Samnee can deliver the Captain America that we need right now.

 

Credit: DC Comics

Batman: White Knight #2
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

 

After a clumsy opening, Sean Murphy continues his deep dive Batman and the Joker’s relationship. In a perfect world, he would expand on a few ideas from the first issue and allow readers to really start to understand the story that’s taking shape. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what happens. Instead, Murphy’s narrative becomes even more bloated and the point of his work becomes even more obscured. At this juncture, Murphy seems a bit torn between delivering on a solid premise and exploring the world of Batman through that lens or trying to make some sort of statement, and those two goals are at odds with each other.

Murphy’s vision of Gotham has a lot of unique details that force him to fall back on the same tools he utilized in the first issue in order to get his thematic and plot elements across. We get a big chunk of this book in flashback as Murphy explains the existence of two Harley Quinns (no doubt an indictment of the current version of the character) and the talking heads are back lamenting those dumb “SJWs” again. It’s clear that White Knight is a vanity project, but some of the details in this script are just cringeworthy, reading like a fanboy upset that the things he likes have changed even a little bit.

In order for any of Murphy’s plotting to play, readers have to accept a one details of the story at its face: this version of Batman is dumb as a sack of bricks. I’ve got no problem with creators changing a bit about a character to facilitate a story (especially an Elseworlds one) when part of the story is getting us back to the character we know and love. But Murphy’s entire story crumbles if Batman is a reasonable and intelligent person at any moment. If Joker really hasn’t done anything (like, say, murder) to justify Batman’s relentless pursuit of him, then what is his deal? And is Bruce really so stupid that he doesn’t know that other rich people are profiting off of Batman’s war on crime? Murphy doesn’t give us any reason to believe he’s not, and the narrative is really just all over the place with how it tries to understand the relationship between Batman and the Joker.

All that aside, the art remains the selling point of this book, and it’ll have you wishing all those pesky word balloons didn’t get in the way. The frustrating thing about Murphy’s work in this book is that as clumsy a writer as he seems to be, he’s a hell of an illustrator, and his ability to tell a story with a single image is incredible sometimes. A splash page where Harley finally understand the love triangle between herself, the Joker and Batman is simply sublime, as the Joker and Batman part of the image takes up more than half the page almost pushing Harley to the side. It’s great! Murphy sells that idea really well with the art there, and manages to elevate the narrative by giving it some poignancy. Similarly, a sequence towards the end that features many of the Gotham City rogues works really well. That’s where concept and cool come to a head and actually work. Unfortunately, we’re talking about pages that makes up less than half the book.

White Knight still doesn’t have a handle on what it wants to be. Is Murphy righting what he sees as the wrongs done with these characters over the years? Is he just trying to tell a cool story? Is he trying to make a political statement, given the framing of the Joker in the story? It’s pretty unclear right now, but he’s still got six issues to figure it out. All in all, come for the art, and hope Murphy figures out the rest because there’s a lot of potential here if the creator can decide what he actually wants to do here.

 

Credit: Marvel Comics

Power Pack #63
Written by Devin Grayson
Art by Markia Cresta and Chris O’Halloran
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Kat Calamia
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

 

With the return of Devin Grayson to the Big Two also comes the long-awaited return of Marvel’s youngest heroes, the Power Pack — or at least one of them. Focusing on an adventure from the team’s past, Power Pack #63 puts emphasis on how growing up has affected Katie Power. This one-shot has all of the elements to make a good “Marvel Legacy” issue, mixing nostalgia with modern Marvel storytelling, but there is sadly just one thing mixing — the rest of the Power Pack.

The issue opens up with our youngest Power Pack member now in middle school, working with her teacher on a new draft of her English paper while not-so-secretly recalling a superheroic adventure from her family’s glory days. Devin Grayson uses Katie’s homework as a unique narrative structure for the issue to help capture the voice of a middle schooler. This choice allows for the issue to flow nicely, but at the cost of focusing too much on the past — we didn’t receive any new information about Katie’s life other than she is in middle school, while the rest of the Power Pack aren’t shown at all. Their present lives are hardly referenced, which is a bummer because of the team’s lack of panel time in recent years.

But that said, Power Pack #63 does stay true to the “Marvel Legacy” mantra. It embraces the nostalgia of the original Power Pack ongoing series from the 1980’s, while also nicely showcasing the personality of a slightly older Katie Power. It’s interesting to see Katie look back at her time as a hero and how the disbandment of the team has affected her relationship with her family, particularly her older brother, Alex, who has been off-planet with the Future Foundation. This leads to a surprisingly somber ending for Katie’s story — namely, her family is growing up, but she still misses spending time with her siblings as a superhero.

Marika Cresta on pencils and Chris O’Halloran on colors help bring the nostalgic look of the original Power Pack to the modern age. There have been a few iterations of the Power Pack since the team’s original series, which leaned more towards a cartoonier, all-ages appearance. Cresta and O’Halloran gives a new refined look to the original Power Pack style, particularly through the team’s power set. Their take on Julie Power, a.k.a. Lightspeed, is particularly dynamic, her rainbow trail showing how fast she takes to the skies.

As a potential catalyst to an ongoing title, Power Pack #63 is a solid issue that is a nice throwback to the original series, but if the team doesn’t get an ongoing it will be disappointing to look back at how we didn’t get a chance to see the other Power Pack members in the present. This makes Power Pack #63 a bit of a mixed bag, but hopefully this one-shot is just the start to something even greater.

 

Credit: Image Comics

The Gravediggers Union #1
Written by Wes Craig
Art by Toby Cypress and Niko Guardia
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

 

It might seem like the world is going to hell, but it’s not ghost-storm, zombie attack, and marauding vampire levels of crazy. At least not just yet. Spinning out of writer and artist Wes Craig’s Blackhand collection comes a fully-formed version of that batty world, and the only line in the sand is the the titular The Gravediggers Union. The original concept tips its hats to the classic, but definitely grooves to its own beat.

Craig and the art team set the stage for their universe with a wordless five-page opening piece set “a long #$%# time ago.” Apes carrying embryonic pus sacs is not something you see every day, which strangely sets us up neatly for the workmanlike attitude with which the aforementioned supernatural storms and walking dead are presented. As Cole and his fellow Union members shovel their way through the undead, they come to the realization that fewer bodies are staying below ground these days. Their quest to seek the Witches, the higher authority in the land, is the impetus for the tale.

Three decades ago, Ghostbusters envisaged a blue-collar attitude to paranormal investigation and extermination. The Gravediggers Union takes it one step further by bureaucratizing it. For all the mystery that Craig’s script throws up in the intriguing first issue, what’s remarkable is that this world feels entirely lived-in and authentic.

The phenomenal artwork of Toby Cypress has a lot to do with this success in storytelling, with a style that sits somewhere between Ed Piskor and Matt Kindt by way of a stack of pulp magazines. As the action kicks off with the Gravediggers battling a “junk golem,” the grainy retro stylings establishes the book as sitting in that timeless sliver of Anytime, USA. Complete with a generous dose of Ben-Day Dots, Cole could have stepped out of a comic book in the 1970s, while another clean-cut Union member looks like a G.I. from the 1940s.

With the exception of the slick opening sequence, Niko Guardia’s color scheme is a muted affair, as if the issue has recently been unearthed in some long-forgotten attic. There’s lens flare here and there, elevating each panel to something closer to a exploitation flick from the 1970s. It’s an immersive approach that never feels gimmicky.

One suspects that Craig’s crazy world is something of a mirror to our own, like all good genre pieces. With this first issue, he drops just enough hints about Cole’s relationship with his daughter to give us a motivation for us to stick around for the long haul. These characters just seem like they’ll be a ball to hang out with along the way too.

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