Best Shots Reviews: MARVEL 2-IN-ONE #1, DARK NIGHTS: METAL #4, X-MEN - GRAND DESIGN #1

Marvel Comics December 2017 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Marvel 2-In-One #1
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Jim Cheung, John Dell, Walden Wong and Frank Martin
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The past can be a trap - but it doesn't always have to be.

It's something that can be said of comics and fandom, dating all the way back to Stan and Jack in the '60s to Marvel's latest "Legacy" initiative - nostalgia is a powerful force, one that can stagnate or inspire with equal measure. Thankfully, Chip Zdarsky and Jim Cheung resurrect an off-beat title and turn it into a profound love letter to Marvel's First Family in Marvel 2-In-One, a book that honors its past while simultaneously taking steps to explore the future. But beyond wonderfully reclaiming two members of the scattered Fantastic Four, Marvel 2-In-One is also a remarkable read that shows new depth for the Howard the Duck writer while providing some truly show-stopping artwork.

Though we mainly know them as teammates and family, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm have been leading different lives in the aftermath of Secret Wars: while Johnny has teamed up with the Inhumans and the Uncanny Avengers, Ben took to space with the Guardians of the Galaxy, only recently returning to Earth as he tries to navigate his newly lonesome life. In this opening, Chip Zdarsky leans into these de facto brothers' growing divide, following Ben as he grapples with finding direction in his life while showing Johnny's anguish as he throws himself into increasingly reckless behavior, including a great Dark Knight Returns opening riff of the former Human Torch overclocking a stock car until the engine overheats and explodes, just to see if he can survive the wreckage.

It's powerful, poignant stuff, but given the title of Marvel 2-In-One, it's also a gutsy move - by separating his two leads and giving them the space to breathe, Zdarsky is able to demonstrate his firm grip on Ben and Johnny’s characterizations nicely, giving audiences one of the best new introductions to the Fantastic Four in quite some time. Yet even beyond characterization, the promise of the adventure to come Zdarsky hints at seems be a great one, one that hits that sweet spot between epic science fiction and heartfelt family drama that only the FF can provide.

But Chip Zdarsky isn’t the only one aiming for the heart in this debut. The art team of penciler Jim Cheung, inkers John Dell and Walden Wong, and colorist Frank Martin also double down on the script’s more emotional tone. Given Zdarsky's jokey, sometimes talky writing style, it's almost surprising to see so many silent pages in this book, but why write dialogue when Cheung's art can say a thousand words? With great sequences such as Ben trawling through the boxed-up remains of the Baxter Building, or Johnny Storm's near-suicidal launch into the stratosphere, Cheung clearly relishes the drama of this revival, with his iconic character models allowing the moods and reactions to shine through. Given a tightly focused detailing by the inks of Dell and Wong, Cheung is content to wear his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his scene blocking and along with the richly highlighted colors of Frank Martin succeeds in making this debut just feel - for lack of a better term - genuine.

Though certainly not perfect, as it suffers from the dreaded first issue “Mystery Box” that comic books tend to suffer from nowadays, Marvel 2-In-One #1 is ultimately a fun and affecting opening chapter in the greater Fantastic Four saga. In many ways, this book feels like an answer to DC's "Rebirth." It's a trip down memory lane - even if it's a memory that brings happiness and pain in equal measures - but more importantly, it's a way forward. The past can trap us, but it can also set us free - and thanks to the bonds of time and friendship, Marvel 2-In-One is the kind of throwback that could define Marvel's "Legacy."

Credit: DC Comics

Dark Nights: Metal #4
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion and FCO Plascencia
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Spoilers aheead.

The key strength in Dark Nights: Metal has been its combined senses of fun and imagination. When the series commits to showing something new, both writer Scott Snyder and art team of penciller Greg Capullo, inker Jonathan Glapion, and colorist FCO Plascencia are all at their creative peaks. A downside is that the moments between those sheer inventive heights slow the comic book to a grinding halt and leaves a few panels feeling like they’ve been spoiled. Despite a slow opening act, when Metal #4 finds its legs, the comic book becomes visually and narratively exhilarating, and surprisingly grounded despite how abstract and obtuse some of the plot conceits are.

Set over the backdrop of arcane text, Dream’s opening musings about stories that should never be told establishes the primordial tone and metatextual aspects of the comic. Yet this opening page is also indicative of this issue's flaws on a larger scale: While Snyder's story attempts to be serious as he introduces the Justice League and their search for Nth metal, the art style of the page (which includes a speech bubble from a fish that's just a skull-and-crossbones) feels exaggerated and anachronistic to the point of distraction. While Metal just from its name has a bit of a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, you can't help but feel that the creative team is trying to do too much at the expense of the elements that are already effective.

This sense of indulgence plagues a few of the scenes that follow. The idea of corrupted mirror forms of Superman is an excellent and frightening idea of Snyder's, thanks to how frightening the Dark Batmen have already been, but the scene is tainted by Bruce Wayne snagging the Five Finger Death Punch Gauntlet, a glove imbued with every type of kryptonite. Since we don’t see this item used at all in this issue, it is obviously going to have some major plot ramifications down the road, but it seems thrown into an otherwise good scene for lack of a better way of introducing it, and as a result comes off as inorganic storytelling.

Likewise, the subsequent scenes of the remaining split up heroes have several strong elements, but the execution still feels overdone: Diana at the Rock of Eternity is well written, as is Mr. Terrific, while Kendra Saunders comes off as a thorn in the team’s side, albeit one with an understandable position. All of the characters are where they need to be doing what they should be doing, but the amount of dialogue used to show the dissension in the ranks, which even though it culminates in one of the best scenes in the issue, never gives what is happening on the page room to breathe.

The scenes of Aquaman and Deathstroke beneath Atlantis and of Green Lantern on Thanagar Prime are similarly plagued. The Aquaman scene generates more suspense than you might expect, as Arthur and Deathstroke discover a secret portal in the tomb of an ancient king, but it gets weighed down by an “Aquaman talks to fish” joke, which is overplayed to the point of being DC’s equivalent of fart jokes. Green Lantern’s search for Nth metal, meanwhile, is held back by a large amount of plot contrivances and frustrating artwork that sees the heroes unable to see anything just outside of the panel.

At the midpoint, however, something changes, and Snyder, Capullo, Glapion, and Plascencia push the issue to operatic heights, making the back half of the issue deeply enjoyable. As Batman and Superman team up with the Sandman, Snyder tackles primordial forces and cosmic implications but never loses sight of the characters or their emotional cores. In particular, the Dreaming gives Capullo a chance to show off, with his depiction being an amalgamation of cosmic spacescapes, Borgesian bibliolabyrinths, and psychedelic curvatures. The narrative and art are so strong that what is ostensibly an information dump ends up feeling profound, especially when it is revealed that the book from the beginning is Dream's own way of propelling the Justice League's story forward.

The back half of the comic book is also unrelenting in its use of heavy hitting moments and complications, including Black Adam’s emergence as an ally of Barbatos to the even more impressive reveal Kendra Saunders’ corruption and emergence as Lady Blackhawk, a reveal that is enhanced by subtle touches of reflective wings showing the heroes reactions. Any of these could have been strong reveals in their own right, but even those become secondary in the final page reveal, one which shows Carter Hall emerge from the Forge at the center of the Dark Multiverse as a gargantuan beast introducing himself as the “Dragon of Barbatos.”

For every element in the opening of the comic book that holds it back, Dark Nights: Metal #4 closes with something grand enough and unexpected enough to pull readers back in. The reveal of Barbatos being a counterpart to the Monitor and Anti-Monitor sells the weight of the character and ties it to all of DC's Crisis events that it has been referencing to this point. Snyder and Capullo throw so many obstacles in their heroes’ paths that it’s hard to imagine a way that the event will conclude in two issues with anything less than a Barry Allen pace, but the strength of this comic book's closing moments makes it hard not to get excited. Everything feels unpredictable, but nothing feels random. It’s a story that deserves to be told.

Credit: Marvel Comics

X-Men: Grand Design #1
Written, Illustrated and Lettered by Ed Piskor
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The strangest superheroes of all have certainly had a complex and convoluted history, but Hip Hop Family Tree creator Ed Piskor is more than up to the task of sorting it all out in X-Men: Grand Design #1. Piskor's penchant for research and ability to pare things down to a succinct narrative are extremely necessary skills for navigating the ins and outs of the X-Men’s extraordinary history. While the Marvel Handbooks stood for a long time as the standard for encyclopedic knowledge of the Marvel universe, they have since been replaced by the internet - so with that all said, is there any draw in a book that looks on the surface to be an illustrated Wikipedia entry? Thankfully, yes.

With this opening installment of Grand Design, Piskor really tries to split the difference between the more frigid language of a historical text and the warm characterization of these characters over the course of decades. The result is a book that reads like a good friend telling you an incredibly detailed story rather an exhaustive recap of everything that happens. A lot of that has to do with how Piskor frames the story solidly within the confines of the Marvel Universe. Rather than covering things in order of their publication, the story of Marvel’s merry mutants unfolds in regular time as we meet a young Professor X and Magneto as well as World War II-era Wolverine, even before the word “X-Man” is even uttered. For X-Men fans, it’s fun just to see these moments in time in order rather than through various retcons and for those that are new to these characters, it provides some clarity to their histories.

Piskor’s illustrations also go a long way to helping readers through the narrative. While his work doesn’t have as much in common with traditional superhero artists as you might expect given the material, the style allows him a lot of freedom. Rather than be bound by the conventions of the genre that he’s summarizing, he can takes some fun chances while still delivering his take on iconic moments and panels. While Piskor’s interpretation does dull some of the pathos of the original material because he so much ground to cover, it’s very much a love letter to all of those stories.

X-Men: Grand Design is a must-read for X-Men fans but also the perfect primer for those who might feel a bit overwhelmed by years and years of continuity. For Marvel, it represents a really great way to provide historical texts of their universe and show how they fit together on a more macro level without aping the resources already provided for free on the internet. Ed Piskor is an incredible talent working in comics today and he treats the source material with love and respect. This is a truly for fans by a fan, and it's so much better for that.

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