Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN #36, CAPTAIN AMERICA #696, More

DC Comics December 2017 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Batman #36
Written by Tom King
Art by Clay Mann, Seth Mann and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Tom King delivers his wholehearted thesis statement on the World’s Finest and their relationship in Batman #36. Neatly bisected between Gotham and Metropolis as Clark, Lois, Bruce, and Selina unknowingly investigate the same case, King focuses his script on both couples' conversations about one another, as Batman and Superman each bristle against the idea of having to talk to one another about something other than the world ending. While that may not sound like the most exciting of Batman/Superman stories, King engages readers early with some truly hilarious exchanges between the couples, using the humor as a strong foundation for the issue’s compelling tenderness that neither hero would be caught dead admitting to each other (or their significant others). With the emotion and humor amplified by the returning Mann brothers and skilled colorist Jordie Bellaire, Batman #36 is a World’s Finest story that sets aside action and mystery for something much funnier and much more heartfelt.

Usually when a friend of yours gets engaged, you send a note, a gift, or at the very least, give them a call of congratulations. But when you are Superfriends, the rules are different to say the least. With Batman #36, writer Tom King displays his uncanny knack for turning a seemingly small story into something much more affecting ala “The Brave and The Mold” or “The Ballad of Kite Man.” But unlike those stories, King here shows just how flat out funny he can be, while keeping the humor firmly locked in character for the entire cast.

For example, as both couples discuss how to handle the situation, they are still engaging in their “day jobs,” with Lois and Clark investigating a fraudulent train insurance scheme and Bruce and Selina looking into stolen plutonium. “I don’t see why I need to call him,” grouses Bruce as he and Catwoman patrol the rooftops of Gotham. All throughout these opening scenes, King bounces back and forth to both couples as they have the same conversation and hit the same stubborn stumbling blocks, while the Manns and Bellaire put them through their paces with a speeding locomotive and a rooftop showdown in Gotham. But as Batman and Superman hem and haw about who should call first, King keeps the laughs coming as the women in their lives consistently call them on their B.S. and tell them to get over themselves in order to move forward.

But this humor in the early half gives way to a deep, winding river of emotion as both Bruce and Clark reveal to their wives exactly what they think of one another and, as we know, they aren’t nearly as different as they both think they are. From the jump, King displays a real sense of empathy and respect for Bruce’s position in regards to his relationship with Superman, having Bruce voice what many fans really think about Superman as a character — he’s so perfect that it’s hard to stand next to him and not feel inadequate. But King also extends that same attention to Superman, giving him the understandable position of being in awe of Bruce’s drive and willingness to turn his pain into positive change. “All he has are his wits and his will,” Supes confides to Lois, “And he chooses to do this.” World’s Finest stories are usually judged by their pacing or their set pieces, but Batman #36 gives them another barometer by which they will be measured in the future: their heart.

And speaking of heart, this issue wouldn’t be nearly as sincere as it is without the singularly expressive talents of Seth and Clay Mann and Jordie Bellaire. The Manns, who are quickly becoming some of my favorite Batman artists, take King’s script and run with its emotive exposition, tempering the dialogue with kinetic and detailed action in both the heroes’ respective cities. Colorist Bellaire keeps the action neatly separated thanks to her firm handle on the sunny, optimistic tone of Superman stories and the gloomy noir of Gotham City.

Engagements are tricky to begin with, but Batman #36 shows how superpowers and the “professional” relationship between superheroes complicates matters even further. I mean, it isn’t like Clark Kent can just send a bread maker and call it even, right? But Tom King, Clay Mann, Seth Mann and Jordie Bellaire deliver a Batman/Superman story that cuts to the quick of their relationship with plenty of heart, laughs, and a deep respect between the two heroes that neither they — or the comic reading audience — can deny.

Credit: Mike Del Mundo (Marvel Comics)

Doctor Strange #382
Written by Donny Cates
Art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Two issues into his Doctor Strange run, and one thing is for certain: Donny Cates understands tone. Throughout his sophomore issue, Cates weaves in and out of emotionally resonant character moments, character-based humor, and character-driven plots with uncanny ease. All of this makes the second installment of “Loki: Sorcerer Supreme” a dynamic reading experience, albeit one that sometimes pushes Loki, the better-written of the two primary characters, to the periphery. Strong art from Gabriel Hernandez Walta and warm colors from Jordie Bellaire help unify the two narratives at play, giving everything depicted a sense of familiarity before shocking readers with a final page twist as jarring as a million exploding suns.

Where the previous issue spent the majority of its time away from the titular character, Doctor Strange #382 opens on Stephen Strange climbing a mountain and musing about enlisting a non-existent ally to help battle a god - and that’s before we get to Stephen’s talking dog. Flashing back to Strange’s new calling as a veterinarian, Cates allows his lead character to go into full-on exposition mode with some strong comedy chops, as he’s telling this information to a slack-jawed couple who just wanted to get their cat looked at. But that comedy is just setup for a frightening reveal — namely that Strange’s successor, Loki, has teamed up with Stephen’s former assistant Zelma on the hunt for a mythical spell that is said to siphon all the magic of the world into one person.

While Loki’s attempt to open the locked door in the Sanctum Sanctorum has some of Cates’ best character-born comedy, his place in the story can’t help but reveal the issue’s two primary shortcomings. First is that Loki and Zelma’s relationship escalates several pages too soon, and the panel of Loki showing romantic warmth to Zelma hits readers out of nowhere. There is a potential argument that Strange’s later revelation — that the aforementioned legendary spell is bound to Zelma’s soul in a mystical spin on Roger Fisher’s famous 1981 proposal that the president can only access the nuclear codes by murdering an innocent close to him — can explain Loki’s fast attraction to Zelma, but it doesn’t explain the degree of tenderness that the Asgardian God of Mischief shows.

The second issue is that Cates seems intent on keeping the interactions between Strange and Loki as minimal as possible, while still featuring both characters as the stars of the series. He can’t have his cake and eat it, too, and in this issue the redemption of Loki falls by the wayside. These two characters’ fates are obviously intertwined, and this book is still called “Doctor Strange” and not “Sorcerer Supreme,” so Stephen Strange won’t be able to go away. Hopefully, the last page reveal of Strange’s ace in the hole will push the plot to a point where Strange and Loki will be able to occupy main character status so that both characters’ stories can be explored symbiotically rather than having one at the expense of the other.

That point/counterpoint might best be displayed near the end of the issue, as Cates suddenly pulls the rug out from under readers as someone close to Stephen gets caught in Loki’s crossfire. You hurt for Strange because he just lost a friend, and you hurt for Loki because when Strange scolds him, telling him he “never means to” to do harm, but still does — honestly, it’s one of Loki’s most relatable and human moments. This is enough to set a real collision course between the two, but Strange’s narration of “He did exactly what I would have done,” robs the moment of some of its weight, and sacrifices a moment where both characters could have completely valid positions, instead of Strange being portrayed as overreacting by contacting the Sentry. Still, the autumn palette that colorist Jordie Bellaire uses throughout the issue really adds to this death scene, as everything looks more nostalgic and melancholy than most mainstream comics.

While the flaws of Doctor Strange #382 are in certain aspects of the writing, the writing is also responsible for bringing the comic to the highs that it reaches. There’s hope that the future of this series will see the comic either settle into one protagonist or link the two into the same narratives, and what this comic does right far outshine those criticisms. It’s a comic that flows with sincerity and personality, and shows both Cates as a writer, Walta as an artist, and Bellaire as a colorist doing some of their best, most emotionally powerful work.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #34
Written by Christopher Priest
Art by Pete Woods
Lettered by Willie Schu
Published by DC Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Let’s get this out of the way. 2017 has not been kind to the Justice League brand. What should have been a flagship book was not up to the standard expected of such a title, and outside of stray fill-in issues and tie-ins to Metal, didn’t warrant real attention. Justice League of America has been more contentious, with fans and detractors in seemingly equal measure. And the less said about the film, the better. Yet, the news that Christopher Priest would be taking over the series was reason for celebration and there’s been a palpable sense of excitement leading up to the first issue of his, Pete Woods and Willie Schu’s run, with everyone wondering where they’ll take the series and whether this would right the ship.

So, what is that direction? Well they kick it all off in far-flung space - the Evander Terradome, Dione to be precise - which becomes clear from the second panel of the issue, an intertitle – “Praying Man.” The type of panel will be familiar to those already acquainted with Priest’s work, such as his other currently running DC series Deathstroke, as will how quickly he hits the ground running. For those of you who have not read Priest’s work before, understand this means that we’re playing by his rules now; try to keep up.

Between the first page and the second, a small alien boy bolts outside in the direction of Green Lantern Simon Baz, telling him there's a problem. What’s the problem, you ask? Everything. Come the third page, Baz has already blasted off from the planet’s surface into the vast expanses of space, also in the process of contacting his partner Jessica Cruz. The breakneck pace of this sequence persists throughout as Priest not only brings the rest of the League –– Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman –– into the fold, but puts three tasks on the docket. Some nuns have been taken hostage, an earthquake in El Domingo has trapped thousands, and there’s a fleet from space that’s Earth-bound, and has about an hour before they’ll reach their destination.

What this should make clear is there’s a lot going on, Priest instantly eschews any sense of decompression, bounding from plot to plot. This is largely buoyed through Bruce running strategy and micromanaging the team, which he starts doing within seconds of being introduced. The speed also comes from how the League is split up into smaller groups to handle all three tasks. They’re in constant conversation and there are some switches that need to happen mid-mission, so Priest harnesses this potential to flow from one to the other to the next and back. It can take a moment to attune to the book’s rhythm –– due to its speed and relative density of the material –– even if you happen to be following his Deathstroke, but fret not as that just warrants another readthrough or two, in which you can see how it all clicks together.

That said, it is an easier wavelength to get on with compared to Deathstroke as this is not nearly as steeped in continuity as that series has been. The emotional arc of the series, most tied into Batman’s character, is understandable when you consider how many books he’s involved with in the current DC universe, but knowledge of events in those series is not required. It’s a solid showcase of what the team is capable of (sans Cyborg who gets short-changed due to being stationed in the Watchtower) for both those new to the series and those disillusioned with this iteration previously. Priest demonstrates what ‘A Day in the Life of the League’ can be like, throwing both them and the audience into the thick of it with the initial sense of overwhelming information that stems from that.

That boldness carries across to Woods’ art. When Baz finds himself face-to-face with the imminent fleet, Woods renders the ships with careful cosmic detailing, but floods the scene with intensely bright light. Not only that, but it’s a two-page splash as well. The kind that forces eyes to open wider to take it all, the series announcing itself in a very loud, but incredibly confident manner. His work is not house style, or even house style adjacent, but leaves an impression. That harsh lighting of his colors commits panels to memory, burned into the subconscious because he makes them feel big.

Even panel-heavy pages have a lot going on in them. When Batman swoops in to save the day, Woods frames him from a lower angle, like a member of the crowd that’s assembled is trying to take a photo without someone’s head in the way. Priest and Woods match each other well. The former throws a lot at Woods, but he connects with all and charges it with further momentum. One page of Aquaman and Flash is comprised of panels, partially overlapping and cut off at odd angles, but there’s still a real flow to it. A smooth passage is charted through it by nature of Schu’s lettering and anatomy that’d seem shoddy if a lesser artist attempted what Woods accomplishes.

Woods’ details feel soft and precise, while his inks seem more angular, creating this interesting tension in the midst of his own style. In a way, it seems unbelievable that DC would allow this to be the visual language of their flagship book, even more so when considering how it has been dominated by house style aesthetics since the start of the New 52 (at least). What’s just as remarkable is how Priest gives those crowd-pleasing moments, but they’re baked into scenes, which do far more than just function as vehicles for these moments to exist, then twists the knife in a way that throws it all into chaos. So there exists a layer that serves as orientation, but much more going on under the service as well.

The nature of this knife twist indicates an unpredictability to where Priest is going on a macro-level. Which, in retrospect, should’ve been expected considering how many steps ahead of everyone else he normally is. Moving at his own speed, with an artist who can match it and even push for more, it’s up to the audience to catch up. A mistake is made, consequences happen, fallout is sure to occur moving forward and there’s an all-star creative team to guide everyone through it. One willing to throw the established dynamics into disarray to reassemble it in a new shape. Maybe I’m grading on a curve after the past 11 months, but when considering just first issues, this is the most exciting iteration of the League since Morrison’s.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Captain America #696
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: 6 out of 10

Mark Waid and Chris Samnee on Captain America is one of those comic shop talk dream creative and character match-ups. It’s one that you say would be cool but you give a million reasons why it wouldn’t happen. “They wouldn’t be given as much freedom with a character as big as Steve!” “Waid already wrote Cap. He probably wouldn’t go back.” “Who would even want a Cap book in today’s political and comics climate?” On paper, it seems like a perfect idea. Unfortunately, on actual paper, it’s not really coming together the way we all thought it would. Two issues in, the creative team is content to play things very safe in the aftermath of probably the most tumultuous period in Steve Rogers’ history. The aftermath of Secret Empire should loom larger than it does, but Waid and Samnee basically ignore it.

This isn’t the first time that Waid has been tasked with rehabilitating a wayward character. Daredevil was in similar straits post-Shadowland, and the status quo of the character forced Waid to face the implications of his existence head-on. He may have done so most frequently with humor, but the fact remained that it was important to the ongoing nature of the story that Waid acknowledged the past while moving Matt Murdock’s character forward. We don’t really get anything like that here. The recap text tells us that Steve Rogers is looking for his place in a world that fears Captain America, but we especially don’t see that here. There’s a huge disconnect between intent and execution.

Now don’t get me wrong, this is still a fun little story. It’s been a while since we got to see Steve just having adventures that weren’t in alternate dimensions or where the fate of the world was in the balance. I like superheroes being superheroes in small towns and forgotten places. But for those stories to really resonate, they need to loop back to the larger question that the book poses. We already know that Steve Rogers is a good guy. Waid doesn’t need to prove that to readers. Supposedly Steve needs to prove that and find his place in the world of his story. But the characters that he encounters all love him. Waid gives the illusion that he’s working on a few different levels here, but the only conflict is that a new Swordsman is going to flood a town. There’s no personal conflict for Steve. There’s no conflict for readers as fans of Captain America. There’s no question about what has to be done, and there is no statement made about what Captain America means. That’s usually fine, just not when the framework of your story is built around giving that to us.

Chris Samnee is one of those artists that’s so good, you worry about finding enough complimentary adjectives to describe their work. The cartooning in this book is really stellar; so good, in fact, that is underlines what’s so weak about the script. There’s a very old-fashioned Americana vibe to Samnee’s work, one that lends itself to a character like Captain America as well as the small towns that he’s found himself in over the past couple of issues. But there’s no discord between the script and the art. It’s a bummer because there would be an opportunity for both creators to explore the juxtaposition that such a discord might create.?

Still, Samnee and stalwart colorist Matt Wilson deliver on the art front. This is the best Steve Rogers has looked in years. Samnee’s ability to take the classic costume and not make it look silly even in the wake of more recent redesigns is a breath of fresh air. The back to basics look fits with the back to basics approach to storytelling.

So what do we have with Captain America #696? Well, if you’re looking for a story that explores the fallout of recent events in the Marvel Universe, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But if you just want a by-the-numbers story of good versus evil, Waid and Samnee have got you covered. Somehow that doesn’t feel like enough from these guys. Mark Waid has written some of the most memorable superhero stories of the last two decades and his work with Chris Samnee never lacked in quality. It’s hard not wonder why we’re getting something so pedestrian here. The foundation is solid enough. But the vision leaves something to be desired. We’ll see if Waid and Samnee can come though moving forward.

Credit: DC Comics

DC Holiday Special 2017 #1
Written by Jeff Lemire, Denny O’Neil, Mairghread Scott, Tom King, Joshua Williamson, Priest, Dan DiDio, Shea Fontana, Scott Bryan Wilson, Greg Rucka
Art by Giuseppe Cauncoli, Cam Smith, Tomeu Morey, Steve Epting, Dave McCaig, Phil Hester, Ande Parks, Trish Mulvihill, Francesco Francavilla, Neil Googe, Ivan Plascencia, Tom Grummett, Scott Hanna, Jeromy Cox, Matthew Clark, Sean Parsons, Rob Schwager, Otto Schmidt, Nic Klein, Bilquis Evely and Romulo Fajardo Jr.
Lettering by Clayton Cowles, Deron Bennett, Clem Robins, Tom Napolitano, Willie Schubert, Travis Lanham, Carlos M. Mangual and Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Christmas specials are inherently weird. Almost every successful franchise has used the holiday at some point or other. From the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special through to that time Tabitha in Bewitched appeared in blackface, these seasonal outings are a way of humanising the characters in otherwise fantastical settings. They also give audiences a common frame of reference: if these heroes can find the true meaning of Christmas, then perhaps our wee corner of the Multiverse can too.

In the world of comic books, and at DC Comics in particular, the Christmas outings have an equally long tradition, going back at least until the Superman Christmas Adventure of 1940. The oversized DC Holiday Special 2017 draws on this rich history, also being a throwback to the glory days of anthology issues. Here Batman and Wonder Woman sit happily alongside Sgt. Rock and Swamp Thing, linked together by the festive spirit.

Opening on a wintery barroom scene featuring the unlikely combo of John Constantine, Clark Kent, and hard-as-nails-softie Bibbo Bibbowski, Jeff Lemire’s bookend pieces see the Man of Steel wondering what difference he really makes. Bibbo launches into a series of vingettes that tell him how it really is. For those of us here on Earth Prime, we get the pleasure of experiencing these yarns via the lenses of some of DC’s most creative talents.

The Christmas crackers range from the strangely compelling to the just plain weird. This is, after all, a collection that begins with a Denny O’Neil Batman story about a ghostly granny urging her familiar to kill. A more traditional Christmas tale can be found in Joshua Williamson’s Flash tale, but it’s immediately followed by Dan DiDio’s Atomic Knights tale about the enchanted Trefoil plants coming together like the Voltron of Christmas trees.

The most successful of these stories get to the heart of the characters is Greg Rucka’s unlikely pairing of Wonder Woman and Batman, a dual narrative that most directly answers Superman’s lament of always having “more to do.” It acknowledges the characters “intimate relationship with darkness” before they remind themselves that “the light always returns.” For some this will be a cheesy Hallmark sentiment, but for others a timely reminder of what DC does better than any other publisher.

Yet like many anthologies, DC Holiday Special 2017 is just as much a showcase for the artists as it is for the short stories. Francesco Francavilla’s distinctive style lends itself Tom King’s Sgt. Rock piece, for example, with each of his chiaroscuro-lit pages representing a different night. Phil Hester and Ande Parks make a triumphant return to Green Arrow and Black Canary (in a story by Mairghread Scott) after almost a decade, and it’s a joy to see the Emerald Archer and his partner in crime in Santa costumes.

Speaking of Green Arrow, Otto Schmidt cuts loose on Shea Fontana’s Titans story, his energetic style bringing the right amount of colorful chaos to the team. Nic Klein’s work on Scott Bryan Wilson’s Swamp Thing story is diabolically dark, while Steve Epting grounds a Batman ghost story with laser-focused realism.

While a mix like this is typically difficult to sustain, and some of the characters might seem like complete non sequiturs if you’re not familiar with their ongoing series, the Christmas theme makes this an excellent collection overall. It’s a whirlwind tour through the DC Universe that highlights the core strengths of these heroes, wrapped up in an accessible and entertaining package. Which is what DC should be doing more of, and its unquestionably one of the best stocking stuffers for any self-respecting comic book readers this Christmas.

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