Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN: CREATURE OF THE NIGHT #1, MYSTIK U #1, More

"Darkhawk #51" preview
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: John Paul Leon (DC Comics)

Batman: Creature of the Night #1
Written by Kurt Busiek
Art by John Paul Leon
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

With all the spotlight on DC's Watchmen sequel Doomsday Clock, you might be forgiven for overlooking Batman: Creature of the Night, Kurt Busiek's spiritual successor to his seminal 2004 work Superman: Secret Identity with Stuart Immonen. While Bruce Wainwright's parallels to unlikely superhero Clark Kent's journey prove to be a little less straightforward than you might expect, this book also provides a masterful showcase for John Paul Leon's artwork, making this a must-buy for that reason alone.

Comparing Creature of the Night to Secret Identity is an inevitable and perhaps unenviable task, given how well Busiek distilled the Man of Steel's tone almost 15 years ago. Yet with his meta take on Batman feels like a gnarlier beast than the coming of age of Clark Kent, as we meet eight-year-old Bruce Wainwright, a Batman superfan whose life is turned upside-down when his parents meet a similar end to Thomas and Martha Wayne. It's here that Busiek also borrows a bit from another modern master, adopting the parallel narrations of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli's Batman: Year One, only with Bruce's great-uncle Alton giving his take on his young nephew's journey.

While Busiek caps off young Bruce's tragedy with a brutal punchline - seriously, not even the original Batman got off this badly - Busiek's at a slight disadvantage because of how young his lead character is. Unlike the existential crises of Clark Kent, named after an all-powerful superhero whose powers he suddenly gains, Bruce Wainwright doesn't quite have the grasp over his understandably churning emotions. He's angry, he's directionless, but he's also too young to have much agency - even when he starts to have visions of a huge, bat-like creature tearing a bloody swath through Boston's criminal underworld.

Despite a bat-avatar not being quite the same one-for-one mirroring of powers that Clark Kent had with his caped namesake in Secret Identity, it's a choice that makes perfect sense when you see what artist John Paul Leon can do with it. Leon is able to synthesize so much great imagery from the Batman mythos - the shadows, the angular silhouette, the ever-present cloud of bats that follows in the Dark Knight's wake - and he's able to put his own frightening spin on it, making this Batman less of a human hero and more of a nightmare monster that can vanish like a dream. He's even able to take a page out of Miller and Mazzuchelli's playbook with a riff on the iconic bat flying through the window imagery.

Leon is also a perfect spiritual successor to Secret Identity's Stuart Immonen - back then, Immonen's work evoked a rougher John Cassiday, but Leon is so much rougher and angular, evoking noir masters like Gotham Central-era Michael Lark. His style makes 1960s Boston seem like a claustrophobic and menacing place, even with small sequences like Bruce waking up in the hospital with a jaded cop seemingly chiseled into the background. Even the moments where he teases the Batman are astonishing, as we fly over Boston, seeing things from the Bat's red-tinged perspective, a horrifying shadow cutting across the city streets. Letterer Todd Klein also adds a nice subtlety to his work here, no easy feat given the fact that he's juggling four wildly different fonts at any given time.

Ultimately, it's tough for Creature of the Night to compete against Busiek's earlier work, in part because the concepts of Batman and Superman are so different from one another from a wish-fulfillment standpoint. Superman views tragedy from a much more removed vantage point - as tragic as the destruction of Krypton was, it's history, not memory - while his vaunted superpowers are intrinsic and without major cost. Who wouldn't want to be invincible? Who wouldn't want to fly?

But when you take away the riches and the kung fu and all the wonderful toys, Batman's origin is exactly the opposite of what most people want - when you put a little boy in a room with no direct outlet to channel his anguish, the window for exciting escapism is much more narrow. That's not to say, however, that Busiek isn't gearing up for a powerful story, aided by some truly superlative artwork - but that it might take more time for this Creature of the Night to capture readers the same way its predecessor did.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Darkhawk #51
Written by Chad Bowers and Chris Sims
Art by Kev Walker and Java Tartaglia
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Because nobody demanded it, Darkhawk #51 hits stands and attempts to pick up just about every dropped plot thread that poor old Chris Powell has taken part in. What’s that? You don’t know who Darkhawk even is, much less that he’s been in Marvel comics intermittently since the ‘90s? Well, you’re in luck. Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, the writers behind Marvel’s last nostalgia trip, X-Men ‘92, try to do so much here to make this new reader-friendly that it’s a shame it doesn’t come together. It’s an honest effort that’s unfortunately derivative, convoluted and dull. Kev Walker handles the art, which would usually be considered a win, but even he can’t save this one.

Darkhawk was an awkward attempt to recapture the appeal of a teenaged Peter Parker, only this time with a Nova helmet, an Iron Man suit, wings and a single Wolverine claw. The result was 50 issues of trying to make that character happen, and after his initial run, writers sought to deepen his mythology. The Fraternity of Raptors was born, and ol’ WingClaw got some byzantine backstory that made his continuity approach X-Men levels of headache-inducing. Toss in the Loners, War of Kings and Avengers Arena, and Bowers and Sims had their work cut out for them trying to dial DH back down to something urgent, relatable and (maybe) somewhat cool. But their script comes at you fast, slamming readers with exposition with by-the-numbers framing device. Characters just tell you all the stuff you missed and the editor’s notes (kudos for these actually appearing) let you know where you can read the actual stories. They do put Darkhawk in a position to have new stories told with him, but nothing in their setup makes that seem all that important. There no style to their storytelling. There’s nothing that sets Darkhawk apart from the other hundreds of superheroes. Instead of reestablishing Darkhawk as a character worth reading about, Bowers and Sims opt to summarize his history. That has little appeal in today’s comic book climate.

Barring the return of Mike Manley to the book, Kev Walker is a solid get. He has past experience with the character, and has drawn the hell out of that armor in Avengers Arena. But something’s not working here. Walker’s body language isn’t particularly strong here, and his character designs outside of Darkhawk aren’t very memorable. He leans on a similar page layout repeatedly throughout the book. That works fine with more modular layouts, because it helps make the book easy to read. But Walker opts for slightly askew panels that are placed almost like broken shards of glass. It’s an attempt to add some drama to the proceedings, but it cuts the legs out of big moments like the “I AM DARKHAWK!” panel. I do like his latest take on the armor, though, and when we really get to see it in full towards the end of the book, it’s extremely eye-catching and pops off the page.

Barring offensive stereotypes, there is no such thing as a bad character - they’re only limited by what creators do with them. But as it stands, this one-shot fails to inspire any hope that Bowers and Sims have something new to say and do with Darkhawk. This is basically the comic book equivalent of his Wikipedia entry, and that’s not going to be enough to get readers to beg for an ongoing. Diehards will have some fun with the little Easter eggs and nods to continuity that they know, but that’s about it.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman Annual #2
Written by Tom King
Art by Lee Weeks, Michael Lark, Elizabeth Breitweiser and June Chung
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle take a beautifully melancholic stroll down memory lane in the Batman Annual #2. After marrying the Caped Crusader and his feline rogue counterpart, Tom King delivers another tale of their courtship and subsequent life together in a neatly bisected script well-suited for the annual format. Opening on their playful first “dance” together, King solidifies Batman and Catwoman’s position as one of comicdom’s preeminent couples with a poetic but propulsive story about Selina’s early efforts to better Bruce as a hero. Brought to life by masterful pencilers Lee Weeks and Michael Lark, the second "Rebirth" Batman Annual is a soaring yet bittersweet look at the lives of the Bat and the Cat.

“Near The Beginning” states the caption box on the opening page of this annual; a simple setting for two not-so-simple people. But this post-”Year One” and “War of Jokes and Riddler” setting is perfect for the kind of story King wants to tell with this annual, as it strips away the baggage continuity has heaped upon both characters. This focus translates beautifully to the opening scenes as Bruce and Selina engage in some flirtatious fencing with Catwoman continually breaking into Wayne Manor and stirring up a ruckus only to leave a tiny mouse behind in her wake.

This weird little detail might not sound like much, but King spins it into an effective metaphor for Bruce Wayne’s early career as Gotham’s protector. As Selina explains, she is doing all this as a sort of training for Batman. “You’re still the sweet darling mouse who can’t quite see the Cat coming,” she chides him on the roof of Wayne Manor, but her “training” isn’t fully coming from a place of malice. Before this, King treats us to another scene where Selina quite literally breaks into Bruce’s most protected sanctum: his mother’s room. It is here, in the light of a single scratched pearl, where Bruce and Selina finally connect with one another as outcasts and lonely ones at that, poised as the only people to truly understand each other’s loneliness.

King also takes Bruce and Selina’s relationship to its logical end point later on in the issue, with these early “Year One” scenes acting as his solid emotional foundation. Though the direction he takes is a little rote as the pair grow old together and Bruce contracts an unnamed terminal illness, King really keeps things romantic instead of maudlin. Bruce and Selina are content in their old age and greet Bruce’s death with grace and poise, marking a clear difference between this and other “Elseworlds” takes on Bruce Wayne’s death.

Though King’s script here simmers with the same poetry and theatricality that makes his run so readable, a large portion of the annual’s pathos and energy stems from the artwork. Neatly dividing their efforts just like the script, artists Lee Weeks and Michael Lark keep the action firmly grounded in realism, despite the odd trek across a rainy rooftop, giving this annual more of the look of a 1960’s Billy Wilder movie than that of a normal Batman comic book. It also doesn’t hurt that they are paired with accomplished noir colorists Elizabeth Breitweiser and June Chung, both of whom infuse the past and future with a moody, but understated colors that bring the pencils, tone, and mood into tight focus.

Tom King’s Batman run has run hot and cold for readers since it started but as Batman Annual #2 proves, there is no denying the very real emotional core that lies at the center of his take on the Dark Knight. Buoyed by his heartfelt, emotional focus on Bruce and Selina’s relationship and some fantastically human artwork from Lee Weeks and Michael Lark, Batman Annual #2 continues the series’ streak of wearing its dark heart on its sleeve.

Credit: Julian Totino Tedesco (DC Comics)

Mystik U #1
Written by Alisa Kwitney
Art by Mike Norton and Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The term “in medias res” sounds a little like a spell. In fact, it’s Latin, but with enough added showiness it could masquerade as an incantation when spoken aloud. What it entails is starting a story somewhere further down the line than the actual beginning, usually on a narrative beat like an action sequence that’s far more enticing than the chronological start in the hopes of hooking an audience on page one, before jumping back in time to build back to that moment. So not a spell, but one of the oldest tricks in the book.

This is Mystik U and writer Alisa Kwitney’s opening gambit. In a brisk prologue set in the wreckage of Columbia University - at a time referred to as “six months post-Malevolence” – a doomed Zatanna carries out a contingency plan that looks to prevent this chaos from ever happening. Which takes the story back to Las Vegas, seven years pre-Malevolence, and centers on a younger Zatanna who still performs stage shows with her father and whose magical abilities are only just starting to manifest.

Zatanna and her father have a contentious relationship that’s outwardly apparent from their conversations off-stage and exists as underlying subtext on-stage. When a show goes wrong, family friend Rose (who you’ll have seen in the prologue) offers Zatanna a place at Mystik University. A bustling campus, where powers are magnified and hopefully brought under control. Arriving with a two-page spread, artist Mike Norton’s eye for the big picture is the main draw. Not only does he build out this moment with a number of characters, some of which will become the book’s supporting cast, but he arranges them in a way that allows the conversations that will follow this establishing shot to take place on a traceable path travelled by Zatanna and Rose.

From here, Kwitney slows the pace considerably. Thrown in at the deep end, Zatanna gradually orients herself to this wonderous place, forming a bond with other students, such as new character Pia. The rest of the cast is built from Kwitney picking, choosing, and reimagining existing characters. June Moon sees university as a chance to reinvent herself as Enchantress. Felix Faust’s son Sebastian, called out as a “walking bad-boy cliché,” has a hard edge to him and something to be discovered if you can look past his shades. Her interpretation of Sargon the Sorcerer, David Sargon, is of Iraqi descent because of his surname’s etymology.

Mystik U’s premise and approach warrant numerous points of comparison, many of which are to its detriment, the obvious being Harry Potter. While Kwitney has worked in comics before, the bulk of her bibliography is based in novels, identifiable through the way this issue makes use of chapter breaks. It’s an approach which doesn’t work here because the reader is only being given a chunk of the story, not the full work in the form of a graphic novel. Another is Supergirl: Being Super, which concluded earlier this year and was also a prestige book with a coming-of-age slant. That series had a measured pace as well, but there was a lot more character to be unearthed over the course of its emotional narrative. The characters of Mystik U talk in a way that feels genuine to their age, but despite being mostly character introductions – although there’s something lurking in the pipes to be dealt with as well – no real insight into their personalities is delivered. Running on a bimonthly shipping schedule, there’s little to entice or truly stick with a reader over that extended period of waiting for the next issue.

The recently concluded Gotham Academy also staked out similar territory to this series, but did so by building up a far more eclectic cast, intriguing mysteries and with a vibrant art style. Norton and Jordie Bellaire detail this world as best as they can, but the slow build means they have little chance to show off what they can really do. The two-page introduction to the university is the most expansive opportunity they get, with another spread in the prologue offering the most unconventional layout of the book, but the rest is made up of standard panelling and conversation. To Norton’s credit, the shift from prologue to numbered chapters makes it more evident that his teen characters aren’t just his adult ones drawn slightly shorter, they feel more youthful. While this helps make the story more genuine, the nature of the narrative means his work overall is less rich than it has been on books like Revival.

Ultimately, Mystik U is a disappointment because it doesn’t do enough to define itself beyond a familiar premise. Without its prologue, there’d be little to suggest something different is on the way and that shouldn’t be happening with this kind of book. One unbound by continuity and with twice the page count of what other writers are generally granted per issue. A story focused on the magical should feel… well, magical. Significant ground can be covered in a similar amount of time, Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell is proof of that. With her abilities, Zatanna has to be specific, as this book should’ve been, because others have done far more with less.

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