Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN & SIGNAL #1, PHOENIX RESURRECTION #2, More

"Rogue & Gambit #1" variant
Credit: Bilquis Evely (Marvel Comics)
Credit: DC Comics

Batman and the Signal #1
Written by Tony Patrick and Scott Snyder
Art by Cully Hamner and Laura Martin
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

In the wake of the events of Dark Nights: Metal, Duke Thomas has graduated to a full-fledged member of the Bat-Family. How long will he last, and what will be his downfall: his mysterious and as-yet uncontrollable meta powers, or regular Gotham citizens who just hate to see a bat infringing on their daylight hours?

Batman and the Signal #1 leans heavily into themes of Duke as an outsider from the opening panels. An outsider from the Bat-Family thanks to his powers, from his fellow former Robins for being the only one to “graduate” to a full-fledged bat, and even from the other metas he encounters in his first patrol. For everything Duke has been through, he’s still young and struggling to cope with a lifetime of the trauma that seems to follow being a young person in Gotham at the wrong time. Based on a story he's come up with Scott Snyder, writer Tony Patrick handles the themes with a deft touch that never gets heavy-handed or emotionally overwrought.

Particularly engaging is Duke’s - Signal’s - struggle to be a daytime crimefighter with one of history’s most iconic nighttime beacons emblazoned on his bright yellow uniform. From his first morning meeting with the other Bats (and “official” Robins) to a disastrous first outing that same day, Duke is uncertain with his place in the organization Batman has built. The other Bats don’t have room for another body at their table, and the people of Gotham are immediately resentful of anyone with a Bat crest on their chest invading the sanctity of their relatively-safe daylight hours.

The mystery of Duke’s powers, and the powers of the other young metas cropping up around Gotham, make up the overarching narrative that ties Signal to the work of the GCPD. Batman and the Signal is starting off with just three issues, but Patrick’s script is tight and well-paced; he introduces just enough to hook readers without an overwhelming dump of exposition and ambitious narrative threads, a common struggle for miniseries. If you haven’t been following Dark Nights: Metal, this book isn’t a place to start, but if you have any passing familiarity with Duke from past events like Robin War, you’ll be able to enjoy Batman and the Signal #1 without much issue (to Patrick’s credit).

Cully Hamner does an excellent job on art (particularly faces - even faces at a distance or in profile without much “face” to work with are expressive and easy to follow) but Laura Martin does an especially noteworthy job on colors. The way she handles Signal’s powers is visually distinctive and suits his light-based abilities; the soft, pale way she colors his “visions” of how light has traveled in a space in the past is both lovely to look at and an effective way to indicate a change in perspective. From an editorial standpoint the decision to give Signal a yellow suit is an excellent way to distinguish him from his fellow Bats. Martin keeps daytime Gotham softly and beautifully lit beneath the warm glow of a blue and purple-tinged sky, making Signal’s black-and-yellow suit jarring and impossible to for surly Gotham citizens to miss.

Batman and the Signal #1 is a book die-hard Batman readers will absolutely enjoy, but for those who haven’t been following Metal, you may want to find a way to catch up before diving into this miniseries. Just a summary knowledge of the event will be enough, or if you’re generally familiar with Duke Thomas, you’ll be able to dive in just fine. Batman and the Signal #1 is a well-written mystery debut, and one even worth having to do a little googling for if you’re not a devoted follower of the Bat-Family books.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey #2
Written by Matthew Rosenberg
Art by Carlos Pacheco, Rafael Fonteriz and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The second installment of the Phoenix’s comeback tour touches down this week, and I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve seen this one before. Marvel’s treatment of this event (if you can call it that) has been odd. Rather than letting it grow organically out of their X-Men line, they’ve dropped a five-issue weekly series in our laps that’s feels only superficially related to what we’ve seen in other titles. Marvel seems to have put the cart before the horse - teasing a big return but then giving it to us in a most inexplicable manner. Matthew Rosenberg builds his mystery out a bit more here, but he practically apes his own plot from the first issue. Carlos Pacheco turns in a better issue than we got from Leinil Francis Yu, but the result is a book that still feels wholly unsatisfying for a number of reasons.

Rosenberg has a lot on his plate with this story. He’s basically got to do something unexpected in the face of readers having an expectation that they know how this one is going to end. So his method of sowing seeds of doubt in the audience is to show us a lot of stuff, but not really give us any explanation for it. X-fans who are keeping up with the line and are well-versed in their continuity will have a leg up on anyone coming to this cold, but even with that knowledge, there’s not a ton of coherent connective tissue at this point. And it doesn’t help that the characters themselves have no idea what’s going on. This isn’t an X-Men adventure. It’s the X-Men doing the same thing they did last issue (splitting into teams and visiting important Jean Grey/Phoenix locations when suddenly one of them gets into a fight) and hoping for a different result. Quite honestly, it’s a bore.

On some level, this book is something of an antithesis to Rosenberg’s work on Secret Warriors. That title features a team with varied and unique voices that allows the writer to showcase each hero as they also navigate an unexpected plot that lives within the larger events of the Marvel world. But the plot here is so stilted and utilitarian that Rosenberg’s character work comes across the same way. It’s frustrating given Rosenberg’s stated affections for the X-Men that he can’t do anything more than move these characters around the globe and have them give what amounts to stock phrases while they stand around.

For his part, Carlos Pacheco does a decent job here. He’s not great at rendering hair throughout the issue and he stumbles once in a while with his expression work (especially on Cable and Wolverine, for some reason). The highlight is the X-Men’s fight with a classically costumed Magneto. That’s when the pacing and rendering is most consistent and Pacheco’s fight choreography works for the team of characters he’s tasked with. But elsewhere in the issue, it just seems like there’s a lack of energy especially when the plot is absolutely crawling. It’s hard to make talking heads feel really dynamic, but that speaks to a weakness in the script. Pacheco doesn’t have the choice to draw a different story.

There’s a good X-Men story in here somewhere, but it feels like Rosenberg is really spinning the wheels at this point. Obviously, there will be more to the ending than readers assume. As I said in my last review, these creative teams are too talented not to pull something good out of this. But something’s got to give. This event should have really intense and exciting repercussions for the X-Men line but right now it feels entirely like a banal explanation for the return of a beloved X-Men character. There’s a lot of forethought in including the elements that Rosenberg is touching on here, but he’s not framing them in a way that will make more than the most devoted X-fan care.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Rogue & Gambit #1
Written by Kelly Thompson
Art by Pere Perez and Frank D’Armata
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Nobody wants to work with their ex, let alone save the world with them. But that is the hand Kelly Thompson deals in the debut of Rogue & Gambit, a new team-up miniseries that finds the on-again-off-again-then-on-then-off-again couple paired up to infiltrate a suspicious mutant “resort.” Though the history (and baggage) between the two X-Men is well-known, Thompson neatly sidesteps recapping it and instead uses it as a firm foundation for her witty, flirty, and engaging script. Along with the expressive pencils of Pere Perez and the warm, vibrant colors of Frank D’Armata, Thompson crafts a realistic feeling and often hilarious relationship comedy with the two and threatens to transform them into something truly unheard of in the X-Men universe - a functioning couple.

After a chilling cold open that establishes the stakes of the series’ first arc, Kelly Thompson zeroes in on her heroes with some naturalistic character work that is a much-needed breath of fresh air. And better still, she takes the expectations we already have for the title and then playfully injects them into the story as jokes. For example, the entire story is predicated on the premise that there is a remote resort that caters to mutant couples and “takes away their trauma” - and in doing so, they apparently disappear completely. So who better than the X-Men’s resident hot mess express, Rogue and Gambit, to break the case? As Rogue bristles at the idea, Kitty Pryde hits the nail on the head as to why she chose them; “You’re there to work out your problems!” she says, because who doesn’t love some personal revelations being unearthed while you are saving lives?

And that is the word that keeps coming up throughout Rogue & Gambit #1: personal. In separating Remy and Rogue from their respective teams and basically forcing them to confront themselves and their volatile relationship, Thompson really cuts to the core of both leads. Though a little extra momentum would have done the overall plot some good, as we don’t get much besides the dark cold open, Thompson’s focus on their pairing and current continuity status really makes the pair shine in a way they haven’t in a good long while.

It is no secret that as of late both Rogue and Gambit have become somewhat stock characters peppering various Avengers and X-Men team books, but Thompson strips them both down to basics, recalling what made them pop in the first place, while still keeping their original voices and personalities intact (within reasonable limits). I won’t lie, I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of a Rogue and Gambit team-up book after suffering through ramshackle takes on the characters in books like Uncanny Avengers and All-New X-Factor, but Thompson thankfully gives them a soft reset as actual people with real emotions and motivations instead of just making them walking accent generators.

But while Thompson’s clever and endlessly shippable script provides the issue a solid backbone, it is Pere Perez and Frank D’Armata that bring it all home with sun-soaked colors and vapor-inducing character models. Though more of Perez’s kinetic action blocking would have done this debut a world of good, he still proves the right man for the job with emotive, tightly compact panel grids that always keep the emotional states of the characters center stage. This focus really comes through in the scenes where it is just Remy and Anna Marie on panel reacting to each other in kind like a sort of superhero themed black box theatre production. And putting a Crayola-like blanket of hues over the pencils is Frank D’Armata, who leans into the sunny setting and the loud costumes of the pair with aplomb; marking a distinct change from the more cloudy and dour colors of the current line of team books.

Standing as a neat mixture of Thompson’s Hawkeye run and the FXX comedy You’re The Worst, Rogue & Gambit #1 is exactly the kind of back-to-basics shake up these characters sorely needed. Though thin in plot, but heavy in character work, rich colors, and sexual tension between the leads, this team-up might just be the breakout X-book Marvel needs.

Credit: DC Comics

Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles #1
Written by Mark Russell
Art by Mike Feeman, Mark Morales and Paul Mounts
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

“A young lion makes good! Only in America!” DC Comics continues its reinvention of the Hanna Barbera cartoons with this brilliant take on a character best known from The Yogi Bear Show. With Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles writer Mark Russell and his team shift the setting to the early 1950s for one of the most immediately exciting comics to come out of the left field. The right field, even.

Snagglepuss has long been interpreted as a gay character, and Russell doesn’t mess about in subtext and innuendo. Opening in the summer of 1953 in New York, acclaimed playwright Snagglepuss is appearing at the closing night of his play, My Heart is a Kennel of Thieves. As his wife departs for the evening, Snagglepuss exits stage left to the Village to liaise with his lover Pablo. Meanwhile, the House Un-American Activities (HUAC) has begun targeting creatives such as Lillian Hellman in their communist witch-hunt.

Russell doesn’t quite hit the same comical tone as the previous appearance of this character in the Suicide Squad/Banana Splits special, and this is actually a good thing. Where you could hear the voice of actor Daws Butler positively dripping out of every line in that earlier back-up story, with all the requisite “Heavens to Murgatroyds,” here the dialogue is more in line with the style of Southern Gothic playwright, Tennessee Williams. This new approach allows us to take both the character and the looming threat seriously, even if ol’ Snagglepuss himself isn’t.

This first issue is filled with historical and pop cultural references that add to the authenticity. Russell has named his HUAC prosecutor Gigi Allen, for example, “whose very name is synonymous with virtue and good taste.” It’s another knowing wink to an audience: transgressive performer G.G. Allin was known, amongst other things, for self-harm and defecating on stage. There’s also the more lighthearted kind, such as the appearance of Huckleberry Hound as a fellow writer. On the other side of the fence, we see Julius and Ethel Rosenberg tried and executed for treason, while Pablo tells a story of the systematic and homophobic laws that were introduced in Cuba during this era.

As with Steve Pugh’s work on Russell’s The Flinstones, artists Mike Feeman, Mark Morales, and Paul Mounts bring a grounded realism to a city filled with talking animals. Humans and animal characters interact freely, with Feeman’s line art ranging from the comically expressive (humans wearing dog noses and ears on stage) to the sedate backgrounds of Cuban architecture. Superstar color artist Mounts maintains a consistent vividness to the palette throughout, something you’d expect when the lead character is bright pink. The combination of this approach and the 1950s setting almost make this DC’s version of Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido’s Blacksad, which is about the highest compliment one can pay a comic filled with anthropomorphic animals.

Russell has already given us two of the best reboots of the last few years with The Flintstones and the sorely underrated Prez, and now he can add a third instant classic to that list. More than just a series of catchphrases and in-jokes, Russell and the art team have taken an easily mockable character and turned out one of the more compelling dramas of recent memory. This might be the first must-read of 2018.

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