Best Shots Reviews: SUPERMAN #42, ARCHIVAL QUALITY, BABYLON BERLIN

Archival Quality
Credit: Oni Press
Credit: DC Comics

Superman #42
Written by Peter Tomasi and Pat Gleason
Art by Pat Gleason and Alejandro Sanchez
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

They say for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. So what happens when Clark Kent becomes a contented family man, working the farm with his loving wife and son in Hamilton County?

Well, that’s what makes Superman #42 such a deliciously subversive read - while family life might suit Superman, it’s a deeply ill fit for his distorted doppelgänger Bizarro. Following the ersatz Man of Steel, storytellers Peter Tomasi and Pat Gleason deliver an inversion of Clark Kent’s idyllic life that feels so bleakly comedic because, in many ways, it feels so much more possible.

Bizarro used to be free - but starting a family changes a man. And as Tomasi and Gleason establish a dark and surreal riff on their first issue of Superman, we see that the usually childlike Bizarro is struggling with his new, err, “irresponsibilities.” Whereas we’ve seen Jon Kent worship his father over the years, Bizarro just doesn’t get any respect - he feels his vitality draining, his wife thinks he’s lazy, and his son thinks his worm farmer father is a world-class loser. It’s both hugely pessimistic and deeply funny, as Tomasi and Gleason skewer the arguably unachievable family dynamic they’ve been showcasing with the Kents for 42 issues - but at the same time, it’s hard not to feel something for Bizarro when he laments the sacrifices he’s made for his family, how he feels like he has given up on his dreams and aspirations. In a way, you could say that’s exactly what having children is - putting someone else’s hopes and dreams above your own.

But thanks to Bizarro’s backwards method of speaking, there’s an added layer of involvement and humor to this book, as you have to work a little bit harder to get your dose of storytelling. “Me didn’t used to feel loved and disrespected, but now me am not just a riddle. A floormat not to be walked under,” Bizarro thinks to himself. “If me don’t keep letting everyone walk under me, there will be something left.” (Meanwhile, when Bizarro’s wife Loiz takes a swing at her belligerent beau, the sound effects read as “tickle.”) Working out Tomasi and Gleason’s little jokes throughout the comic brings a dad-joke kind of sensibility to the storyline that it’s hard not to chuckle at - and when the story baton is passed to the Son of Bizarro, well, that proves to be just as funny, watching this surly superpowered preteen gripe around the farm.

Of course, much of this book’s success comes from Gleason’s artwork, as he lovingly references his visuals from Superman #1, throwing in unsettling angles and hilarious visuals gags in every corner. Whereas Clark Kent put his hand near his multiverse counterpart’s grave, leaving a blue handprint, Bizarro is putting his feet in the weeds, leaving a glowing red footprint. When lightning sets their farm on fire, instead of a plaid-covered farmer rescuing cows, it’s a Hawaiian shirt-wearing Bizarro rescuing a grotesque giant worm. Yet when Tomasi and Gleason wisely deviate from their self-homage before the jokes start to get stale, Gleason also reminds us of how endearing Clark, Lois, and Jon are on their own turf, with Jon’s wide-eyed innocence (particularly in the face of a girl who is obviously into him) really establishing why we should like him as a character.

There’s something hilarious and wrong about Superman #42, as Clark Kent’s misshapen counterpart not only distorts Superman’s powers and persona, but skewers the entire idea of a wholesome family life the character has come to represent. Bizarro has long been a character of untapped potential - check out the great Flowers for Algernon riff Scott Lobdell has been doing with the character over in Red Hood and the Outlaws if you don’t believe me - but Tomasi and Gleason wind up giving the character untold depths as he struggles with something far weightier than superpowered beatdowns. If family is Superman’s greatest power, then it is absolutely Bizarro’s Kryptonite - and watching him struggle proves to be a potent and subversive experience.

Credit: Oni Press

Archival Quality OGN
Written by Ivy Noelle Weir
Art by Steenz, Deb Groves
Lettering by Joamette Gil
Published by Oni Press
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Archival Quality will stick with you. Ivy Noelle Weir and Christina “Steenz” Stewart’s debut graphic novel for Oni Press is a sincere and emotional exploration of mental illness against the backdrop of an unsettling supernatural mystery. When Cel is let go from her local library job in the wake of mental health struggles, she finds herself with an opportunity to work at a spooky medical museum as an archivist. It seems like a dream job - no degree required, a free place to stay, a great supervisor, and a massive archive of fascinating history to peruse — but between her secretive boss and eerie dreams that plague her with increasing frequency, Cel quickly discovers she’s going to be forced to confront her own past in order to put a gruesome mystery to rest.

Weir and Steenz are a perfect fit for a book with such heavy themes: Steenz’ art has a rounded, cartoonish charm for it that offers a much-needed balance for the morbid setting, giving us space to process Cel’s plight without relying too heavily on stereotypical visual cues for depression or horror. There’s a tendency in art to tend too much towards miserable grays and blacks with bloody spot color to indicate sadness or fear, but instead, Steenz delivers a world that’s almost but not quite normal - there’s an air of timelessness to the Logan Museum, punctuated by characters who feel out of place with their contemporary styles.

The horror elements - skulls, strange specimens - seem to appear with increasing frequency throughout the book, multiplying as Weir crafts an unsettling narrative that grows increasingly unreal and strange as Cel’s story unfolds. Archival Quality is a claustrophobic read littered with stutter-steps, the kinds of stumbles that have you wondering what you tripped on only to find out there’s nothing there.

As someone who also deals with mental illness, Cel’s journey is uncomfortable and at times difficult to read; Weir has a grasp on the full spectrum of what it means to be dealing from mental health and articulates these issues through Cel in a way that feels both deeply sympathetic and unapologetic about not only the impact of those issues on the person struggling, but on the lives of those around them. It’s the struggle of understanding something is wrong, but not the full scope of what, of knowing those around you want to help but chafing against an extremely limited idea of what help might mean to them - the fearfulness and frustration of having those around you blow off your legitimate struggles and concerns as things that will disappear with the right therapist or medication.

Archival Quality is the harrowing struggle to find those people who will believe you without question and the never-ending internal battle to constantly recalibrate what it means to keep yourself healthy and your relationships with others healthy. Cel’s boyfriend doesn’t get her need for space, her desire to have room to process or that urge to set firm boundaries to give yourself room to rebuild when your illness snatches from you what you’d thought to be the core of your identity.

But until she encounters the ghostly presence that urges her to uncover the museum’s dark secrets, it’s similarly tough for Cel to recognize the impact her actions have on those around her; throughout the novel, learning to help the trapped spirit with whom she develops a kinship gives Cel space to explore new ways to trust and bond and build relationships that can grow and change as she does.

In helping someone who had all agency stripped from her, Cel gains a deeper appreciation for what it means to be able to trust someone. Archival Quality provides a sense of closure for its core mystery but instead, for Cel, offers kindness and hope - a set of relationships that don’t hinge on her health to be fulfilling, and the skills to maintain them in healthy ways even in her lowest points. This is a journey that doesn’t end with the conquering of one single demon, and Archival Quality understands that. This is a beautiful book, visually and emotionally, something executed with thoughtfulness and kindness that delivers a common mix - the blend of mental illness and the supernatural - with a touching level of sincerity and understanding.

Credit: Titan Comics

Babylon Berlin OGN
Written and Illustrated by Arne Jysch
Translation by Ivanka Hahnenberger
Based on the Novel “Babylon Berlin” by Volker Kutscher
Published by Titan Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Titan Comics’ Hard Case Crime imprint gets a sprawling and engrossing new mystery in the form of Babylon Berlin. Standing as a solidly entertaining Sunday read, to go along with a binge-watching of the Netflix adaptation, writer/artist Arne Jysch delivers a deep dive into the seedy underbelly of 1929 Berlin and the hard luck inspector navigating its tough streets. Littered with gorgeously baroque splash pages of Berlin architecture and all manner of Raymond Chandler-esque twists and turns, Babylon Berlin is a book worthy of the Hard Case Crime stamp of lurid approval.

Ambitious inspector Gereon Rath thought he had left the hard times back in Cologne, but as he makes his debut as Vice Squad police in the big city of Berlin, he finds that his hard times haven’t left him behind. Clearly relishing the genre, writer Arne Jysch immerses us in it almost instantly, setting up Rath as a rakish, morally flexible, but stubbornly driven detective and the city as his cruel sandbox. Like most noir, the real plot, involving everything from a posh drug ring led by enigmatic criminals to deposed royalty and stolen gold and every little lurid thrill in between, comes on slow, but hooks readers deeply with well-executed red herrings and thrilling set pieces.

Rath is hot to make A-Division, Berlin’s elite crime squad, led by Inspector Gennat, a stuffy but effective Agatha Christie-esque character with a taste for strudel and for solving murders. After a chance encounter with the former tenant of his rental, Rath goes looking for trouble and finds much more than he bargained for. Jysch’s script draws him into the city’s tangled web of political strife, police corruption, and vice, forcing Rath to confront his own “bent” past and make unconventional allies in order to suss out the real criminals. Offering the pure, uncut version of the current Netflix adaptation, Babylon Berlin quickly proves itself to be hard to put down once you get started.

Though Jysch’s script hits all the beats of the genre well and even manages to throw in some incendiary commentary on pre-WWII Germany, it is his artwork that truly makes Berlin Babylon sing. Calling to mind Darywn Cooke’s Parker books and Sean Phillips’ work on Criminal, Jysch consistently wows with dense black and white pages of hard boiled fun, taking us from smoky basements filled with sin to stuffy parties filled with former soldiers toasting to fallen comrades.

But even better is Jysch’s beautiful tributes to German architecture of the time. Acting almost like an realistic garnish on all the visual trappings of noir, Jysch keeps peppering in detailed and heavily inked depictions of Berlin in all its brutalist glory. Vistas like that of the Landwehr Canal which kicks off our four-part mystery, the gothic spires of German police HQ (“lovingly” nicknamed the Red Castle), and the city’s famous red light districts, Jysch makes the city itself a character to match his hard-knuckled protagonist. Steeped in the rich history of pulp fiction and of the city from which it takes its name, Babylon Berlin is a beautiful love letter to them both.

Ushering readers through a very specific time period in a richly historied Europe with a honed understanding of the genre it inhabits, Babylon Berlin is another well executed and beautifully brutal yarn from Hard Case Crime and its comic publishing patron. Tightly translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger, Arne Jysch’s artwork and script gives audiences all the beauty and ugliness of Berlin, wrapped in a seedily epic tale of corruption, sex, and justice. If Babylon Berlin popped up recently in your recommendations, maybe give this volume a shot first. I promise, the view will not disappoint.

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