Best Shots Reviews: RISE OF THE BLACK PANTHER #1, BATMAN - WHITE KNIGHT #4, More

Image Comics January 2018 cover
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Brian Stelfreeze (Marvel Comics)

Rise of the Black Panther #1
Written by Evan Narcisse
Art by Paul Renaud and Stephanie Paitreau
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Readers are treated to a heartfelt and intimate family history in the debut of Rise of the Black Panther. Written by Gawker reporter Evan Narcisse and consulted on by current Black Panther scribe Ta-Nehisi Coates, this debut takes us back to a time before T’Challa’s reign as the Panther King and gives us a front row seat to the rich and tumultuous history of Wakanda. Though perhaps a bit too closely tied to Coates’ labyrinthine run, Narcisse still manages to inject a real palpable pathos into the issue, following T’Challa’s birth parents through the majority of the story as they attempt to make Wakanda a better place for their subjects and unborn son with wonderous technology and an unconquerable spirit. Lovingly rendered with expressive artwork from Paul Renaud and colorist Stephanie Paitreau, Rise of the Black Panther #1 is an intriguing start for the title’s historically minded look at the Wakandan royal line.

We open on a familiar face in an unfamiliar place. Taking his story all the way back to Captain America’s first encounter with Wakandan culture, Narcisse’s deep dive into Marvel history proves to be both a hinderance and boon for the debut issue. On one hand, the Captain America and Howard Stark cameos found therein give the story a real bedrock and establish that while the outside world may not have been aware of Wakanda, the kingdom thrived all the same. But on the other side of the coin, appearances from Changamire and the fearful tones at which the Hunter is spoken of might prove to be a bit too “inside baseball” for those just wanting a straight-up history of Black Panther.

But these hiccups aside, Narcisse does tap into the deep well of emotions, court intrigue, and interpersonal relationships that have made the Black Panther titles as of late so enjoyable. Focusing mainly on the courtship and marriage of T’Chaka and N’Yami, T’Challa’s birth mother, Narcisse delivers an eagle-eyed view of the Wakandan royal court, prejudices and all, as the pair buck against the established order and work to build a new, brighter future for the country. Along with the internal drama, Narcisse even peppers in a bit of external strife as well, detailing a failed attempt to breach the walls of Wakanda by HYDRA. Though both these tracks of narrative real estate have been trod by the main title, this debut brings the action and intrigue into tighter focus and brings a much more straightforward energy to the proceedings than its poetically minded forebear.

Adding to that energy is the down-to-earth and naturalist pencils of Paul Renaud and the earthy colors of Stephanie Paitreau. While those looking for the splashy action or mind-bending page layouts of the main title will be disappointed, Renaud acquits himself very well to the more intimate and personable script by keeping the emotions, not the movements, of the characters front and center. This gives the title a much more emotionally engaging energy than its predecessor, an energy that is amplified by the photographic colors of Paitreau. Though I would have loved to have seen a bit more action from the pair aside from the fast-paced scrap between HYDRA and Wakandan forces in the issue’s back half, Renaud and Paitreau still deliver a nice mixture of intimate and epic as they move the audience through Wakandan history with easy to digest pages and hues.

Equal parts oral history and relationship drama, Rise of the Black Panther #1 is an imperfect, but solid enough entry point into the hero’s culture and history, backed by decades of in-canon Marvel history. Though I worry about its connections to the sometimes uncrackable narrative of the main title, Paul Renaud, Evan Narcisse, and Stephanie Paitreau still do an admirable job of guiding readers through the ins and outs of the Wakandan royal court with heart, grace, and more than a few callbacks to big moments in T’Challa’s history. Though reader’s mileage may vary going into this debut Rise of the Black Panther #1 aims to add historical context to T’Challa’s story in the lead up to his big-screen solo debut.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman: The White Knight #4
Written by Sean Murphy
Art by Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Micallef
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Sean Gordon Murphy’s Batman: White Knight is certainly screaming for something - its inks are too masterful, its linework too striking, and its demeanor too fiery for it not to be-  but despite the volume, it’s hard to make out what Murphy is yelling about. In an alternate reality DCU where Murphy has heel-turned The Joker into Gotham’s newest public servant, everything depicted wants to evoke modern political dialogue, but doesn’t bring anything to the table in its recollection.

This issue picks up at a political rally where the Joker, now known as Jack Napier, is on the campaign trail for city council on a platform of shedding light to the excessive force employed by Batman and the Gotham City police department. Napier’s demonstration has attracted both a large group of loyal fans and the ire of the GCPD. With tensions bubbling over, loyalties between both Batman’s allies and the Joker himself being pushed to the breaking point.

But if Murphy is trying to comment on anything here, be it the limits of vigilante justice or otherwise, it’s hard to hear over how hard the keys are being jammed into his keyboard. In trying to make a story where the roles of Batman and the Joker are subverted, we instead have a story where there’s no one to root for with any sort of clear consistency. Murphy has employed political talking points, cribbing from both Black Lives Matter and the White House but with little substance, subtlety or subtext to back it up. Even his opening scene of Napier’s protest being interrupted fails to offer a substantive understanding into where Murphy’s morals exactly lie, as he bounces between populist slogans against the “elites” while also positioning himself as both a protector of minorities in crime-ridden Backport and a backer of the clearly dysfunctional Gotham City Police Department - which makes a book that posits itself as moral exploration of law enforcement, crime, and redemption through the lenses of Batman and The Joker a particularly hard pill to swallow.

Almost everything about Sean Gordon Murphy’s Batman: White Knight is “capitol I” Intense, save for the coloring. In a story this garish, where Batman’s greatest villain has reinvented himself into a populist politician seeking to gain Gotham’s favor, it’s oddly relaxing to have the palette chosen not scream at the same volume. Matt Hollingsworth’s coloring is muted and striking; reds pierce through the general overcast feeling of the book but only as a dim flashlight, not a lighthouse, hazily reminding the reader of how alternate this reality of Gotham is. In particular, the scene where a new brand of villain is unleashed onto Gotham in lieu of the Joker’s absence of villainy features such a beautiful array of red hues that one can be taken fully aback by the richness in tone.

Murphy’s pencil work is just as rich in its scope, portraying large groups of costumed heroes and claustrophobic public speaking events in the same dramatic fashion. There’s a one-page sequence where Napier and Harley share a quasi-date night. The storytelling here is incredibly well done and their posing is both believably and fantastical, creating the facade of a storybook romance that can’t help but crash around them once Jack’s past comes knocking. Murphy’s characters are just as exaggerated in their illustration as they are in their characterization, giving the whole book a feeling reminiscent of Tim Burton’s character designs. Danny Devito’s Penguin, in particular, would fit in perfectly here.

Everyone in this book feels like a mouthpiece for something Murphy has a problem with or that with which he’d like to change, it’s just unclear what it is exactly. “It doesn’t bother that he’s trying to white knight a bunch of minorities?” espouses one newscaster to another. Characters in this book speak of lofty ideals, of corruption and police brutality, but none of it is handled with any sort of grace or wit. Murphy’s script is incredibly overwritten with characters constantly espousing some sort of lofty exposition on top of one another.

“Just remember that this was a peaceful protest until Batman showed up,” states Napier as he’s escorted into a police vehicle away from the protests. This moment borrows the modern dialogue created by movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, but cheapens its meaning and fails to justify the narrative’s base-level thesis beyond “sometimes Batman is bad, too.” With nobody to root for, nothing to understand, and an unearned veneer of social relevance strewn across some admittedly beautiful art, Batman: White Knight may be a loud book that tries to use its edginess to demand attention, but at the end of the day, it ultimately does very little to justify its lack of an inside voice.

Credit: Image Comics

Extremity #10
Written by Daniel Warren Johnson
Art by Daniel Warren Johnson and Mike Spicer
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Micallef
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

One of the draws of Daniel Warren Johnson’s Extremity has been its ability to uncomfortably entice and excite through battle and bereavement. Johnson sets up his continuing conflict, between the warring sci-fi tribes known as the Roto Clan and the Pazina as boundless and meaningless. Prior issues of this series detail the numerous ways the Pazina and Roto have escalated the conflict with one another through murder, maiming, and outright destruction. In this issue, however, we follow the children of the bloodthirsty Roto War Chief Jerome as they explore a library of prewar artifacts as they to free themselves of the violence of their peers. This setting, while not as intrinsically bombastic as a battlefield or warship, allows the true power of Extremity to shine: the juxtaposition of beautifully rendered violence confronted with the real transformative effects that come along with it.

It feels oddly contradictory to praise Johnson for how beautifully he renders the battle scenes in Extremity, but this seems intentional, as the reader is invited to consider their gut reaction to exciting, “fun” violence in a new light. Needless to say, Johnson is able to illustrate landscapes and locations in the same vein as a Geof Darrow or a Moebius, beautiful and lustrous, but with his own voice and language, as we watch enemy ships collide and crash-land. There is a fervor in Johnson’s pencils, especially in his action scenes that ripple across the page, crackling with intensity. However in Extremity #10, Johnson is able to whisper when he knows the audience is craving a scream. Where Darrow speaks in intricacy and detail and Moebius speaks through layout and negative space, Johnson’s fire becomes tempered to a slow burn in this issue, fitting for a book ruminating on the nature of destruction and those caught in its wake.

So it's appropriate that Johsnson's heroine Thea so vividly embodies this struggle with transformation through violence. She was an incredible artist, prophesied to be so by the local seer, and when she loses her titular extremity, her identity begins to rot with self doubt and struggle. In this issue, we watch as Thea finally embraces herself and her scars, clutching not only her artwork but her most impassioned memories in her cold, inorganic hands. The weight of these powerful moments never feel too much for Johnson to deal with and are always consistently given the time and empathy they need to blossom, this issue especially.

These ideas personify themselves uniquely within Extremity. Take for example Shiloh, the reluctant robotic superweapon that Rollo befriends and protects. “I don’t know why, but... I suppose I thought I was the first thing made by men to end lives,” Shiloh says, after encountering the husks of past iterations. His his need to protect those he loves and with his detest of violence of all forms leave him bursting at the seams, until a sudden signal transforms him into a grotesque and hulking beast. Johnson’s writing strengths are exemplified within Shiloh’s - he’s a culmination of all the ways violence transforms and disturbs one’s sense of self.

With two issues left, Extremity is shaping itself to be an evocative example of how technique and theme can warp and manipulate one another. With its careful balance of thoughtfulness and dynamism, Extremity #10 indicts the cyclical nature of violence through the visual vocabulary of science fiction. As Johnson builds up to this series' upcoming finale, Extremity is looking to wrap itself up with a mighty bang.

Credit: DC Comics

Harley & Ivy Meet Betty and Veronica #4
Written by Marc Andreyko and Paul Dini
Art by Laura Braga, Adriana Melo and Arif Prianto
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comics and Archie Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Riverdale must be the most visited comic book city in all of America. Over the years they’ve hosted KISS, met the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, been shot up by the Punisher, hunted by the Predator, and battled the living dead. Not bad for a small town whose principle distinguishing export is letterman jackets. Four issues into Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy’s tourism caper, the Gotham City Sirens are spinning their wheels in an increasingly elongated but mildly charming tale.

It’s an old-fashioned body swap comedy, with both sets of the titular duos trying to make the best of their freaky Fridays. Reggie is now actually convinced he is the Joker, about the only thing from stopping thugs taking out the displaced Betty and Veronica. Meanwhile, the Blossom siblings have a diabolical plan to cover Betty and Veronica in maple syrup and leaves, not counting on Betty’s athletic prowess being aided by her inner Quinzel.

The ludicrous nature of the narrative is where the simple joy behind these issues resides. Betty and Veronica temporarily embrace their new alter egos, allowing the squeaky clean personas of the Archie Comics archetypes a safe environment in which to unleash their inner bad girls. These aren’t the more mature Mark Waid-inspired Riverdale denizens, after all, nor are they the CW’s sexy melodrama. Similarly, there a basic comedy trope at play of the crooks forced to play nice that works here as well as it works in Nuns on the Run. It’s just that there’s a lot of it.

The art team of Laura Braga, Adriana Melo, and Arif Prianto are having a ball with the visuals. Rather than matching the anti-villains to the style of Archie Comics, as was the case with Marvel’s Punisher crossover for example, they bring the high schoolers firmly into the world of DC Comics. Peach-Head Henry’s perpetually dripping noggin is an exemplar of the kind of innocent violence that the issue is aiming for. At other times, Ivy’s vines form panel borders for an entire page, a fun flourish in an otherwise straightforward bit of goofy fun.

The best Archie crossovers have tended to be one-shots or incredibly limited series. Harley & Ivy Meet Betty and Veronica is evidence towards the idea that Riverdale visits work best in that format. It’s difficult to see how this will stretch out for another two issues, but it’s all in good fun after all. It might just be the antidote needed to the doom and gloom of the event crossover season that’s right around the corner.

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