Best Shots Reviews: PUNISHER #218, BATMAN WHO LAUGHS #1, More

Batman Who Laughs
Credit: Riley Rossmo (DC Comics)
Credit: Mike Del Mundo (Marvel Comics)

Doctor Strange #381
Written by Donny Cates
Art by Gabriel Hernandez Malta and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Doctor Strange has been one of the most new-reader friendly titles in Marvel’s house of heroes for years, and with new series writer Donny Cates’ inaugural comic about the Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange #381 winds up being a more welcoming opening issue of an arc than most modern superhero comics manage. The issue is noticeably well-balanced and strongly paced, with writing that is always reinforced by either Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s deceptively detail-rich artwork or color artist Jordie Bellaire’s subtly evolving color palette, which seems to substitute colors as acts of Cates’ script change location, focus character, and tone. Above those technical flourishes, this comic book is such a comic book, and through its balancing act of character vulnerabilities and levity, manages to pack something fun in every page.

It’s not enough to be a movie star or an Asgardian demigod anymore - because now Loki Laufreyson is the Sorcerer Supreme. That much has been ostensibly the hook to this arc since it was announced. Cates has gone on record saying not to ask how this happened, but rather why, and while both are covered, the latter is given the bulk of the focus. Despite this, the issue withholds both of those linchpins as readers are instead greeted by apprentice Zelma Stanton who allows a worried man complaining of haunted eyeballs into the Sanctum Sanctorum, which is now floating because the new Sorcerer Supreme “doesn’t like walk-ins.” This entire opening sequence is representative of what this issue gets right. Juxtaposing the magic and the mundane, Zelma’s nonplussed reactions to the Sanctum’s weirdness establishes her a human anchor in what could be an alienating environment.

Meanwhile, Walta proves his skills in both framing characters within panels with backgrounds that are filled with detail but which never take the reader’s eyes away from what ultimately matters most. The first panel of the interior of the Sanctum Sanctorum illustrates this perfectly, thanks to Cory Petit’s precisely placed lettering, as the eye is first drawn to what is presumably Stephen Strange’s narration, then to Zelma’s dialogue, and finally to the large snake coiled about the location. If you pause on the page, however, you notice a myriad of other magical artifacts, including a portrait of Loki in the background, which occurs before we ever see him and before any character even mentions his name.

This introduction also shows how well-balanced Cates’ script is, with the set-up of the chained-up, axe-cleft door being echoed later in the script when we learn that that room is the one facet of Stephen Strange’s life and powers that are off limits to Loki in a vaguely Bluebeard scenario. The door is going to obviously open at some point in this run, but at present it shows us the first crack in Loki’s confident exterior. This crack further expands in a later scene with Loki and the new Thor Jane Foster - whereas elsewhere Loki comes off as grandstanding and arrogant, here he becomes a genuinely conflicted character, one which knows he has flaws and a troubled past but ultimately wants to be better. The Robbie Thompson-written and Nico Henrichon-drawn backup does well in establishing parallels between Loki and the previously selfish pre-Sorcerer Supreme Stephen Strange. Loki’s desire to be better is so properly displayed in his interactions with Jane, but her skepticism of his honesty in these moments are given equal weight and care by the issue. Readers will likely draw their own conclusions.

The final moments of the issue are when we, at last, see Doctor Strange. In contrast to the bombastic and over-the-top introduction Loki receives, Strange’s entrance is a nice surprise in its mundanity. While giving away the punchline would be cruel, Strange’s two pages of screen time might give some readers pause given that this is a Doctor Strange book, but it also makes clear that his character is going to be going through some changes as well. Both Stephen and his successor want to help people, but magic and godhood undoubtedly complicate matters.

While its scarcity of the titular character and heavy reliance on other Marvel heroes might put off a few readers, Doctor Strange #381 will undoubtedly be an issue that finds its way onto a lot of new reader’s pull lists. Not only does it deliver on the intrigue of its concept of Loki as Sorcerer Supreme, it also reveals a real strength in characterization in multiple characters. The storytelling and art of this issue manage to work on both a superficial level and a level that rewards readers for slowing down and appreciating everything that the creative team has put on the page before him. And it does all of this while drumming up a lot of excitement over the many directions that the arc can go from such a strong starting point.

Credit: DC Comics

The Batman Who Laughs #1
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Riley Rossmo and Ivan Plascencia
Letters by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Jon Arvedon
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The Dark Knights have been no laughing matter to the DC Universe, but their ringleader is an entirely different kind of punchline. Weaving together the Dark Knight the Clown Prince of Crime, The Batman Who Laughs is a deeply creepy look into one of the most unsettling of the Dark Multiverse’s evil Batmen. James Tynion IV and Riley Rossmo twist the narrative knife into Bruce Wayne’s heart, leaving a jagged scar that, from a certain angle, might look like the bleakest of smiles.

Beginning his story on Earth -22, Tynion presents us with an all-too-familiar scenario of the Joker basking in city-wide hysteria while Batman’s on the ropes, setting the stage for the Dark Knight’s inevitable resurgence. At this stage in the game, it hardly comes as a surprise when we learn that the Joker killed the Jim Gordon of this Earth, as we’ve seen just how many familiar faces met similar fates in the previous one-shots. Still, Tynion doesn’t waste the opportunity to include a fitting callback to Gordon’s unbreakable spirit in the seminal Joker tale The Killing Joke (“Right to the end, I heard him shout it over the radio, over and over… ‘By the book. Bring him in by the book,’” Joker says as we see Gordon’s cracked GCPD badge).

From here, Tynion doubles down on Joker’s unique brand of “humor,” which evokes his mentor Scott Snyder’s work back in "Endgame." To put it simply, this Prince of Crime isn’t clowning around - he’s putting bullets in heads, destroying families, and corrupting children, all of which finally pushes Batman over the edge and causes him to cross the one line he swore he’d never cross. Alternate Earth aside, the sight of Batman snapping Joker’s neck is a brutal sight, and of course, Tynion wastes little time in revealing this to be the impetus behind the seemingly incorruptible Caped Crusader’s shocking heel turn.

Still, despite the telegraphed projection of the narrative - at least in a broad sense - there’s no shortage of devilish detours along the way. Tynion’s tenure on Detective Comics even comes into play, as evidenced by his mastery of the Bat-family’s group dynamic (albeit with different team members), which makes their eventual fate all the more heartbreaking. Don’t expect to have time to mourn any losses, though, because that massive right hook is immediately followed by a disturbing and emotional uppercut that - for fans of Super-Sons - will haunt readers for the foreseeable future.

Tynion isn’t alone on this twisted tale of macabre mayhem, though - he’s joined by artist Riley Rossmo, whose scratchy linework provides the perfect foundation to house the horrors at bay. Taking full advantage of every square inch of the page, Rossmo employs layouts that are as dynamic as they are diabolical, such as the series of skewed panels evocative of a deck of playing cards, which cascade across the composition while carrying Joker’s blood and teeth with them. And if you’re faint of heart, be forewarned that no expense is spared in terms of appropriately gory aesthetics, as Rossmo leaves little to the imagination in terms of the eponymous Batman Who Laugh’s predilection for bloodshed. Of course, one can’t mention blood without also mentioning color artist Ivan Plascencia, whose ever-so-slightly muted palette selection expertly encapsulates the bleak tone of the narrative, transcending the plot to give the entire book a uniform feel.

By far the most compelling, if not chilling of the evil Batmen one-shots, The Batman Who Laughs firmly establishes this terrifying new visitor from the Dark Multiverse as a character truly worthy of DC’s post-Metal roster. Still, it’s his significance in the main story thus far that make choosing to pass on The Batman Who Laughs nothing short of a detriment to the overall experience of DC’s biggest "Rebirth" era event to date.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Punisher #218
Written by Matthew Rosenberg
Art by Guiu Vilanova and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

There are two kinds of Punisher stories. One kind are the hard-bitten and gritty noir influenced stories focusing on Frank’s PTSD or his brutal war on crime. The others are usually the sillier, over-the-top affairs, the ones where Frank punches a polar bear or commandeers a jet-ski (hey, it was your fault for renting it out to him in the first place). But the interesting thing about Matthew Rosenberg’s Punisher #218 is that it delivers both kinds of the aforementioned stories in a clever, violent, and propulsive debut issue. Along with returning Punisher colorist Lee Loughridge and the craggily kinetic pencils from Weird Detective artist Guiu Vilanova, Matthew Rosenberg and his team have presented a big, fun, return to shelves for Frank Castle days before the debut of his Netflix series.

In his poignant letter to readers in the back matter of this debut, Matthew Rosenberg talks about the difficult dichotomy that comes with writing Frank Castle. While one subset of readers rightfully vilifies a character like Frank, others hold him up as an example of drive and brutal righteousness. From Rosenberg’s perspective, neither are wrong because “Frank will always be Frank,” but the world around him will always be changing - and this story certainly follows suit. Opening with Frank brutally interrupting an arms deal, Rosenberg drops the Punisher into a larger world of international incidents and S.H.I.E.L.D. mistakes that need a hammer instead of a scalpel to resolve.

A larger scope, in my opinion, is something that always livens up a Punisher story, and while this issue takes its time getting to that point, Rosenberg keeps readers hooked with some witty dialogue (thanks to a particularly iconic one-eyed guest star) and some pitch-black gallows humor reminiscent of the seminal Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon run. This easy humor also supercharges the entire issue’s momentum with both physical and verbal sparring (sometimes both at the same time), particularly during the title’s finale set piece featuring Frank storming a S.H.I.E.L.D. weapons depot for a weapon that will definitely suit him well in the coming installments: the War Machine armor.

Also adding to the issue’s artistic arsenal is Guiu Vilanova and Lee Loughridge, the former being an old hand at rendering the kind of violence and grit only Frank Castle can deliver. Though Loughridge’s color palette here is considerably darker than the last time he colored Frank, the darkness and shadow meld well with Vilanova’s heavily-inked pencils, giving this issue a look akin to a Judge Dredd story. Nailing Jon Bernthal’s likeness nicely, Vilanova’s pencils as a whole adapt well to the street-level crime associated with Punisher stories, but he walks a very fine line between exploitative violence and campy action. Though it is still difficult to truly enjoy an issue in which people are coldly gunned down, Rosenberg, Vilanova, and Loughridge work extra hard to keep the script and artwork’s tongue planted firmly in their cheeks lest the issue devolve into a maudlin, or, even worse, ghoulish display of gun violence.

There are two kinds of Punisher stories and depending on who you ask, you’ll likely receive a different answer as to which one truly captures the spirit Frank Castle. But for my money, Punisher #218 is exactly the kind of self-aware and entertaining Punisher story we need right now. Matthew Rosenberg, Guiu Vilanova, and Lee Loughridge present a story about a simple man in a not-so-simple world, but are also smart enough to know that Frank “just being Frank” isn’t appropriate right now. Though Cloonan’s run made its mark by expounding on the horrors of war and Frank’s Jason Voorhees like capacity for murder, this issue melds thematics with camp, resulting in a best of both worlds kind of scenario for Frank and his new repulsor powered costume. TV Frank Castle looks to have the dramatic market cornered, so there is no reason that comic book Frank Castle can’t loosen up and tell some jokes amid hilariously over-the-top violence here.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Hawkeye #12
Written by Kelly Thompson
Art by Michael Walsh and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Kat Calamia
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

After Hawkeye’s battle with her own clone, Kate takes a breather with - you guessed it - more clones. The All-New Wolverine and her sister Gabby guest-star in a fun one-off issue that creates a harmonic display of Kate and Laura’s similar sarcastic banter. Hawkeye #12 is a needed light issue following the events of Madame Masque as it nicely sets up the series’ Marvel Legacy tie-in.

The issue centers around Laura, Gabby, and Kate following a rogue lab tech from an Alchemax Splinter Facility who has connections with Madame Masque, giving these heroes the perfect reason to team up. Unlike previous issues of this title, Hawkeye #12’s strength is not the mission itself, but instead the interactions that come out of the mission. Writer Kelly Thompson is able to inject all the great character moments from Tom Taylor’s All-New Wolverine mixed with the great emotion and one-liners. This includes great moments like Jonathan the Wolverine meeting Lucky, Kate’s first interactions with “Tiny Wolverine” a.k.a. Gabby, and Kate’s lack of efficient costume changing.

The biggest strength of Hawkeye #12 is that even though this is a one-shot issue to bridge the gap between two story arcs, the issue doesn’t feel like a filler. Thompson has a reason to bring Laura and Gabby to her title as the team-up makes Kate realize that it’s okay to ask for help. This gives Kate the courage to call her mentor, Clint Barton, which perfectly leads into their team-up for Hawkeye’s Marvel Legacy story arc.

With this issue, Michael Walsh takes over art duties from regular penciler Leonardo Romero. Walsh does a nice job at blocking the stellar action sequences and nice comedic timing from Romero’s style, but doesn’t convey the usual strong emotions that Romero delivers with his characters’ facial expressions. Thankfully, Jordie Bellaire’s coloring helps for the tone of the book to feel consistent, delivering the emotions absent in Walsh’s pencils.

Hawkeye #12 also takes some cues from other comic books. The conversation between Laura, Gabby, and Kate in Hawkeye Investigations felt very reminiscent to a scene you would see from Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ Alias and Jessica Jones. The scene has 18 panels spread across a two-page spread as Walsh shows minimum change in facial expressions as Kate puts her foot in her mouth talking about clones with Gabby and Laura. This comedic scene allows a Jessica Jones-inspired look to still feel in tone with the Hawkeye series.

Hawkeye #12 is exactly what readers needed in between two major story arcs. It’s a fun read without skipping any beats from the emotional Madam Masque storyline, and it’s a perfect set up for what’s to come. This issue proves that not all team-up stories have to be fillers.

Similar content
Twitter activity