Best Shots Reviews: AVENGERS #676, BATMAN #39, DAMAGE #1

Batman #39
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Avengers #676
Written by Mark Waid, Jim Zub and Al Ewing
Art by Pepe Larraz and David Curiel
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

“No Surrender” starts to simmer as the villains, stakes, and forgotten history of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes start to come into focus in Avengers #676. Though plagued by needless inter-team bickering, Mark Waid, Jim Zub, and Al Ewing’s script starts to draw back the curtain of this latest epic crossover, revealing just how long the mysterious Valerie Vector has been with the team as well as teasing the stacked deck of villains the Avengers will be facing down. Once again Pepe Larraz and David Curiel steal the show with gleaming, kinetic displays of the chaos engulfing the world and the Avengers as they attempt to stage some sort of counteroffensive. But while the teams struggle to get things together Avengers #676 at least starts, albeit at a dramatically slow pace, to draw its thread together into an engaging crossover story.

Though Voyager’s introduction was a head-scratching cameo last issue, Waid, Ewing, and Zub waste little time establishing her presence in the Avengers’ long and storied history. This recap of sorts provides little answers as to Voyager’s real identity - how about an adult Valeria Richards, eh, Marvel? - it does however at least provide her some context for this particular story, which is a welcome sight.

Better still, the trio seem to be hinting at the larger game they are playing with the events they choose to show her participating in, beyond the first Avengers adventure, making her almost a living “mystery box.” But it is one step forward, two steps back for the story as, of course, the leaders of the respective teams start to buck against one another as they jockey for position as leader of the new joint Avengers task force. I understand this decision, as it adds some interpersonal drama to the proceedings before the big, rousing “come together” moment, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

Part of that frustration stems from the limitations these scenes put on the truly stellar art team of Pepe Larraz and David Curiel. As the teams debate and bristle against one another, Larraz and Curiel do their level best to make these scenes pop, anchoring them with emotive character models, period accurate flashbacks for the Voyager-based exposition, and plenty of sumptuous color choices. But despite all that, I just kept wishing I was looking at more than just heroes standing around a table yelling at each other.

Thankfully the artists get to break out of the Avengers Mansion drama with a truly jaw-dropping sequence of the Black Order and the new incarnation of the Lethal Legion making planetfall. Deposited on Earth by two unseen puppet masters, the two groups of baddies square off in a sequence that allows both Curiel and Larraz to fully flex their artistic muscles, much to the issue’s benefit. Kicked off by an expansive and lovingly detailed double page splash of the two groups of antagonists preparing to strike, the pair only move outward from there, breaking the engagement into sharp, dutch angled panels that are rich in character blocking, vibrant colors, and plenty of anime-inspired “speed lines” and booming SFX from letterer Cory Petit. Though this sequence gives this issue a much-needed visual jolt and the implications of the Order and Legion’s inclusion provides another juicy mystery for fans to chew on until next week, one can’t help but be disappointed that the villains got to have all the fun this time around while the heroes played debate club for much of the issue’s page count.

While the weekly format is an interesting creative gamble for Marvel and has proven effective for other books in the past, the seams are starting to show only two issues into “No Surrender.” Moving at a frustrating pace and hampered by start-and-stop character work, Avengers #676 does little to justify its new weekly format and instead feels like more padding, which isn’t ideal this early in the story. Though loaded for bear once again with some truly stellar artwork from David Curiel and Pepe Larraz, I sincerely hope Al Ewing, Jim Zub, and Mark Waid’s scripting starts to matching pace with the artwork soon because an audience’s patience can only go so far.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #39
Written by Tom King
Art by Joelle Jones and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

To what lengths would you go to keep a promise? Batman and Wonder Woman find themselves put to the test in today’s Batman #39, a continuation of the "Superfriends" arc that serves as a surprisingly effective jumping on point for fans who have let their Batman reading lapse in recent months. Writer Tom King introduces us to the Gentle Man, an eternal warrior who protects our world against a demonic horde birthed from our sins. During a past Justice League mission, Batman and Wonder Woman found themselves on the wrong side of the barrier between worlds, and together they pledge to return to allow the Gentle Man a short respite from his battle. Things aren’t quite what they seem in the realm of the Gentle Man, though - what will happen to Bruce and Diana when they find themselves seemingly trapped for an eternity?

Batman #39 has brought together a top-tier roster of talent, particularly interior artist Joelle Jones and colorist Jordie Bellaire. Together, they bring an incredible warmth and liveliness to this issue, from the playful spark in Selina Kyle’s eyes to the urgency of the battle against the hordes of Gehenna. Jones’ Wonder Woman is strong and stoic and absolutely deserving of a full Wonder Woman run, and she does a stellar job of capturing the emotional subtleties of King’s script. Jones’ linework turns even a simple “right, good” into Commissioner Gordon’s exasperated bewilderment, and Bellaire’s colors keep the darkness of Gotham City’s night from getting overpoweringly grim in a story more about the limits of friendship and commitment than the crime-ridden streets of the Dark Knight’s home.

Particularly charming in this issue is Selina Kyle, who’s both playful and petulant in equal measure as she takes the Gentle Man out for a night on the town. Jones captures Kyle’s easygoing body language perfectly, and the subtle touches of Bellaire’s color work - especially in Selina’s eyes - capture her catlike shifts in mood with even just a little change. The scenes in Gehenna are impressive as well, monstrous and dramatic but not overwhelmingly action-packed. Jones and Bellaire deliver an issue filled to the brim with fantastic artwork that would be worth picking up just for some of the more playful panels.

There’s not much in this issue that requires a great deal of prior knowledge, and what little that does has been so thoroughly shaken out in most mainstream outlets that many returning readers are likely already aware of it. As someone only ambiently aware of the Batman universe, I found this issue engaging and inviting. King focuses primarily on the introduction of the Gentle Man, his life, and the circumstances of his obligations against the horde. The praises of Tom King’s writing are frequently (and rightfully) sung in many reviews, and it’s the consistency of his work that’s particularly impressive. His character work is impeccable, and his ability to keep the spirit of these characters immediately recognizable from event to event for so long is tough to match. Together with Jones and Bellaire, with some excellent atmospheric lettering from Clayton Cowles, Batman #39 is a beautiful book with a little something for Batman fans of all stripes.

Credit: DC Comics

Damage #1
Written by Robert Vendetti and Tony Daniel
Art by Tony Daniel, Danny Miki and Tomeu Morey
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“I joined the Army to become a soldier! I don’t want to be this! Not this! Rrrunnn!”

There’s something very punk rock about the opening pages of Damage, DC Comics’ squint-or-you-won’t-miss-it answer to the Incredible Hulk. In an era where modern-day comic bbooks are tripping all over themselves to show how thoughtful or meaningful they are, there’s something subversive and perhaps even refreshing at how little Damage is about that life. Tony Daniel and Robert Vendetti are less about weighty themes and characterization and more about the visceral feelings you get from a gigantic behemoth who doesn’t want to be anyone’s monster.

Of course, with a bombastic kind of character like Damage, Daniel and Vendetti aim for maximum decompression - out of a 20-page story, over a third of their pages are splashes, as Damage wreaks havoc after breaking free of his government handlers. If this might sound similar to an Unjolly Green Giant over at DC’s Marvelous competition, you wouldn’t be wrong - and to be sure, you can't help but notice how thin the actual narrative can be at times. But even despite this, the creative team winds up justifying their book nicely, adding some interesting wrinkles to their homages to characters like Bruce Banner, Thunderbolt Ross, and Nick Fury.

For one thing, unlike the perpetually peeved Hulk, Damage’s destruction is on a time limit - similar to Al Ewing’s Red Hulk in U.S.Avengers, Damage only gets an hour to smash, which puts a nice Hourman-style sense of tension to the mix. But perhaps more importantly, there’s an existential angst to this book that might come across as surprising - Damage and his alter ego Ethan Avery have a real Jekyll-and-Hyde back-and-forth, but through it all is the question of self-determination. “We don’t have to be their monster!” shouts one of Tom Napolitano’s word balloons. And you know something? That’s a stronger hook than a lot of superhero books have in this day and age.

Adding to the larger-than-life action is artist Tony Daniel, who seems to revel in all of Damage’s destruction. There’s something interesting about Damage from a design perspective - not just his Doomsday-by-way-of-Maggot arms, or Tomeu Morey’s khaki-on-gray color scheme, but the almost undead look on Damage’s face, the bald head, shrunken nose and exaggerated toothy roar, that lends some surprising humanity to the beast, particularly when he pauses to hear a voice coming from inside his own head pleading for mercy and restraint. For sure, as we watch Damage beat down on his armored rival Major Liggett (or a particularly eye-popping intro scene where all parties involved escape from a crashing plane), it evokes the kind of no-narrative-strings-attached insanity of ‘90s superhero comic books, but at this point, we’re just establishing the baseline here — as the rock-’n-roll lyric word balloons suggest, there might be more underneath the surface, just waiting to be unveiled in future installments to come.

It might have been easy to look at Damage as a Marvel rip-off, a sort of thinly veiled jab disguised as an homage. And I’ll be honest - this series may still turn out that way. But as far as first issues go, there’s something surprisingly fun and earnest about Damage’s execution, with two creators just delivering some over-the-top pyrotechnics without self-consciousness and with more than a little heart. With its last-second cameo featuring a big screen-worthy band of antiheroes, Damage may wind up being another casualty in a long line of new superhero characters - but as far as first impressions go, Damage packs a surprising wallop.

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