Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN #44, ALL-NEW WOLVERINE #33, DEATHSTROKE #30, More

"Venomized #1" preview
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Deathstroke #30
Written by Christopher Priest
Art by Carlo Pagulayan, Jason Paz and Jeromy Cox
Lettering by Willie Schubert
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Forget Batarangs and Ikon suits - there’s a razor-sharp weapon in the pages of Deathstroke #30 that isn’t based on either Batman or the Terminator’s formidable arsenals, but in the self-awareness of writer Christopher Priest.

Flash back to the initial announcement of Priest’s Deathstroke vs. Batman storyline. The high concept felt like an almost ludicrous retcon 0 that Damian Wayne, built up for more than a decade as Bruce Wayne’s impetuous biological son, could somehow now be Slade Wilson’s son. What, has the Bat never heard of a paternity test? But Priest knows how that plot sounds, and anticipates that disbelief while delivering a solid opening round between two of the best-trained fighters in the DC Universe. Perhaps more importantly - especially given Joe Manganiello’s upcoming cinematic turn as Deathstroke, who is said to battle Batman in his standalone DC Cinematic Universe film - Priest does some of his best work providing point and counterpoint to these two driven, deadly men, giving us insight into their characterizations even as they try to beat each other to a pulp.

“There is a line. You cross it, and he’s coming for you. He’s not a puzzle. He’s an Etch-a-Sketch.” This is just one of the great one-liners Priest delivers in Deathstroke #30, as he takes a documentarian’s eye to this brewing battle royale, not just employing his trademark title cards to break up his scenes, but employing flashbacks between British stewards Alfred Pennyworth and William Wintergreen to even reality show-style confessionals featuring Robin and Jericho. And like I said before, Priest does a great job at anticipating fan backlash over Damian’s parentage - so much so that while the marketing hinged this as the crux of the storyline, the actual introduction of this plot point feels almost understated. Needless to say, Bruce isn’t played as an idiot - for example, he had his own DNA test taken years ago - and is more figuring out the steps of a new game. But Priest doesn’t forget about his title character, either - while the A.I. Wintergreen and the Ikon suit still feels a little like window dressing for some over-convenient plot contrivances, Slade himself feels like a worthy opponent for Batman, telling the Dark Knight that his associates live only due to his good graces: “Don’t confuse me with some lunatic that dresses like a Penguin,” Slade snipes back.

Meanwhile, Carlo Pagulayan returns from a decent absence from Deathstroke’s adventures, and like Priest himself, his artwork honestly feels like a hell of a tryout for them both to take on their own Bat-book when the dust settles. Pagulayan’s artwork feels almost in the same family as Ivan Reis with a hint of old-school Howard Porter, but he and inker Jason Paz feel light on their feet, never overcrowding their layouts or overrendering their characters. Batman in particular looks heroic but also fierce, but both Bruce and Slade look terrific as they beat the stuffing out of one another after diving through a high-rise window, or a stunning panel of them choking each other underwater with a chain. (This is also a small detail, but I love the detailing Pagulayan and Paz do with Batman’s face, occasionally blotting out his features in shadow while still letting his eyes shine through.) It would be easy for a colorist to get overexcited and overdo a book like this, but Jeromy Cox actually practices some remarkable restraint, imbuing each scene with the right kind of mood and temperature without ever overpowering Pagulayan’s linework.

Executed in a way that feels like vintage Priest, Deathstroke #30 might be the best thing he’s written since he signed up with DC. While Priest’s work on Justice League felt a little scattered and a little too meta-clever by half, Deathstroke vs. Batman winds up being a refreshing and incisive take on two of DC’s most vicious fighters and shows their similarities not just as archetypes, but as actual characters. Combine that with a brutal and high-flying fight scene and some potential twists and turns coming down the line, and you’ve got yourself a real winner with Deathstroke #30, regardless of which character winds up walking out of this battle in one piece.

Credit: Marvel Comics

All-New Wolverine #33
Written by Tom Taylor
Art by Ramon Rosanas, Nolan Woodard
Lettering by Cory Petit
Review by C.K. Stewart
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Laura Kinney’s All-New Wolverine journey is ending, but the All-New Wolverine team is making sure the title goes out for a bang. Today’s All-New Wolverine #33 begins the “Old Woman Laura” storyline, giving fan-favorite Laura Kinney her own unique twist on one of the most iconic comic book stories of all time. But, as with the rest of the run, this team delivers something that feels a little familiar but mostly fresh and new - a story that’s all Laura’s own, surrounding her with her own allies as she faces down her greatest enemy in one last quest to reunite her family before she passes on.

Despite invoking the “Old Man Logan” moniker, this story is more striking for its differences; Laura and Gabby’s future in Madripoor feels more immediately vibrant and hopeful than the much grimmer world of its predecessor. In the near future, following a world war instigated by Doctor Doom, the nation of Madripoor has coronated Laura Kinney as its queen, with Gabby Kinney serving as the All-New All-New Wolverine in her stead. By their accounts, Madripoor is a thriving kingdom under Laura Kinney’s rule, but it’s not quite enough to keep Laura fulfilled - instead, she makes it her final mission as Wolverine to reunite the Kinney family once and for all, no matter what it takes.

All-New Wolverine #33 is a warm and inviting future with an undercurrent of inescapable anxiety - the anxiety of not knowing what to do after a global crisis on that scale, the anxiety that comes with being plagued by the memories of what you lost to achieve something that provides safety and security to the rest of the world. Ramon Rosanas and Nolan Woodard turn Madripoor into a gleaming, beautiful cityscape filled with towering, futuristic skyscrapers lit up under the soft glow of a setting afternoon sun. They do an excellent job “updating” all the characters that appear, from cameos to its leads - Laura and Gabby are older, but familiar, from their looks (Gabby’s hair is a particularly fun detail) to their body language.

The future of All-New Wolverine lacks much of the claustrophobic, existential drama that’s one of the hallmarks of its predecessor series, and it’s refreshing; Laura Kinney and Logan are two entirely different characters, and these stories should, and do, serve two completely different purposes. The central themes of “Old Woman Laura” - a need for closure, a longing for connection, the driving urge to do the right thing in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds - are the threads that connect them, tying Laura to the long legacy of the Wolverine even in her final months under the moniker (for now).

For newcomers to the world of All-New Wolverine, or for folks who have passed on it but find themselves curious about a new take on a classic Wolverine tale, All-New Wolverine #33 is an easy issue to pick up. Taylor, Rosanas, and Woodard provide clear and helpful background information for the future they’ve set up for Laura’s farewell tour, and it’s worth reading just to find out about the future President of the United States in this timeline alone. All-New Wolverine #33 is bittersweet but hopeful all the same, filled with good humor in the face of daunting odds. Nobody writes Laura and Gabby like Tom Taylor, and with “Old Woman Laura,” he and the rest of the team absolutely do not disappoint.

Credit: DC Comics

The Curse of Brimstone #1
Written by Justin Jordan
Art by Philip Tan and Rain Beredo
Lettering by Wes Abbott
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The Dark Knights: Metal event has not only given DC Comics one of the best new spins on the Multiverse in years, but has show their willingness to keep experimenting with characters and form. Writer Justin Jordan, who has already launched Sideways out of the event, continues exploring those fringes with The Curse of Brimstone. It’s a properly dark supernatural book at the heart of the DCU, offering up something traditionally confined to Vertigo’s allotment.

Taking place in the small town of York Hills, young Joe Chamberlain feels stuck in his dead-end town. Yet as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. A mysterious stranger offers him the chance to change himself and his town forever, and all he has to do is just shake the stranger’s hand. It’s a classic devil’s bargain in small town America.

Playing in a similar ballpark to The Strange Talent of Luther Strode at Image Comics, Jordan is in no hurry to get to the titular subject. Much of this issue is about slow-boiling mood and tension, and this curiously paced piece immediately feels at odds with a mainstream comic book line. This is by no means a bad thing, but if one were judging a book by its cover, it’s a debut that’s almost aggressively absent of anything resembling the promised Brimstone.

Yet this same measured pace allows for a much richer character backstory than you would typically see in a first issue. Joe is clearly the principal player, and his long exploratory internal monologues give us an unquestionable sense of his feelings on the futility of small town life. His sister Annie initially works as a sounding board for this angst, but also serves to introduce us to an emotionally and physically disabled father who is sure to play into events later in the series.

Philip Tan’s artwork has earned him fans through his work on Spawn and Suicide Squad, but his style here will have a slightly more divisive quality. It’s a sketchy aesthetic that sits in the strange Venn diagram between Jae Lee and Sean Gordon Murphy. Like those artists, he shares an affinity towards deep shading and carefully defined characters. Indeed, there are some scenes that would look just as effective in black and white were it not for Rain Beredo’s carefully chosen and ethereal colors.

Tan keeps Jordan’s distinctive pace in check via a series of deliberate panels. More traditional pacing gives way to cut-outs and highlights, such as the seemingly random placement of inserts when Joe’s father is introduced. A confrontation between a cop and the aforementioned stranger is energized via a series of panels scattered like playing cards across a table. In the final fiery pages, this framework is taken even further over a double-page spread before the panels disappear completely. They are engulfed in flames, with their tendrils wrapped around vignettes of people and objects ablaze.

Jordan has said in previous interviews that he wants this to feel a bit like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the “end of the world” problems of high school are made real by a supernatural framework. It’s an incredibly tight first outing, if not an entirely unexpected one. It’s always hard to tell where something will go after a fairly straightforward origin story, and here’s hoping that it is further into this town’s particular hellmouth.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Venomized #1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Iban Coello and Matt Yackey
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Comic books come in a few categories that depend largely on the strength of concept, themes and execution. If the goal of any comic book creator is to make a “good comic,” you don’t necessarily need to be good at all three. In fact, most comics aren’t. Now every critic values those parts of book differently and qualifies their critiques by considering them in a larger context of the creative team’s work, the publisher’s output and the world we all currently live in. For me, it comes down three major questions: Is this work presenting something new? Is this work saying anything, and does that thing need to be said? Regardless of the answers to the first two questions, is this work enjoyable? Unfortunately, for a book like Cullen Bunn and Iban Coello’s Venomized, the answer to all three questions is “no.”

But the urge for Marvel to capitalize on its Symbiotic Titan makes sense, with the upcoming Tom Hardy film hitting cineplexes, and after the sales success of Bunn and Coello’s Venomverse, it makes sense that Marvel would keep the trains going with Venomized. This sequel event is the beginning of the conclusion of the story that Bunn started in last fall’s Venomverse event, which felt like a shallow attempt to answer the question: wouldn’t it be cool if everyone was Venom? The answer is no - but with a concept that feels this mercenary, it’s still a surprise to see how shallow and artless the end product feels. Venomized feels less like a story, and more like repackaging old concepts and trying to pass them off as something new. And in turn, product like this forces creatives to be anything but.

It’s essential for stories to have some point of view, but Venomized has nothing to say about anything - even it’s own existence. It’s semblance of narrative exists only out of necessity. It’s character work is present only because characters are present on the page, and Bunn is adept at making them act recognizably even if there’s very little room for it. But nothing that happens seems to be of any consequence to anyone of anything in the story. With warmed-over dialogue and no stakes, it's hard not to feel like Bunn is just going through the motions here. He’s a talented creator who’s shown as much elsewhere in his creator-owned work in Harrow County or Regression, but this event is so devoid of personal voice that it feels like it was written by an algorithm.

With a fluid and dynamic style, Iban Coello’s art is effective in getting us from cover to cover, but it’s hard not to want to see more from him in terms of actual content. He’s proven that he can give readers the iconic moment (Spidey getting the symbiote suit again) and in his Deadpool-related work, he’s shown us that he knows how to make a joke land. It’s unfortunate that he’s been pigeonholed into a certain corner of the Marvel Universe, because I think there’s a lot of unrealized potential here - this feels like Coello’s floor in terms of what he’s being told to draw, and I want to see him pushed to his ceiling. There’s a great foundation here in his expression work, body language and action storytelling. Now, he does struggle with making the scenes between Thanos and Doom feel compelling, but that almost feels like nitpicking given how well he delivers the fight sequences.

Still, one of the big things that holds this story back visually is just that the designs for the Venomized heroes. Almost blending together on every page, you can’t avoid the major stumbling blocks that makes Venomized feel like a rehash. Venom is iconic. Carnage is iconic. The black Spidey suit is iconic. I doubt anyone is going to get that excited about we’re purple symbiote Storm or a Ben Grimm who looks exactly the same save for having Venom’s face. There was a chance to get really out there with these designs, and the art team totally missed it.

Books like this bum me out because to me, they are anti-comics. I don’t expect a publisher, especially one of the Big Two, to put art before commerce - that would be naive. But at least try something new. Comics should always be pushing forward instead of looking back, and I don’t mean that just with characters, I mean that in terms of developing creative and editorial talent as well. Stan and Jack didn’t do what they did by rehashing the old. Neither did Moore and Gibbons, Miller and Janson. I’m not saying that every book needs to be a revolution. Sometimes books can just be fun - see recent runs on Hawkeye, Runaways, Ms.Marvel, and lots more for examples. But comics shouldn’t be so lacking in imagination, and Venomized feels less like a lethal protector than a chief offender.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #44
Written by Tom King
Art by Mikel Janin, Joelle Jones, June Chung, and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

”We keep changing.” “Outfits? I know.”

The Cat, the Bat and Tom King pay stirring tribute to the ever-shifting moral alignment of Catwoman and to her standing with Batman in Batman #44. “Bride or Burglar,” the latest prelude to Bruce and Selina’s upcoming nuptials, puts the focus on Catwoman as she reflects on her sordid past with the Bat all while pulling off another classic Catwoman heist: breaking into a posh bridal shop to select the perfect dress. Written in King’s dreamy style with two different but equally potent art styles thanks to Mikel Janin and Joelle Jones, Batman #44 is another beautiful step down the aisle for the Bat and Cat.

Restless, a cat burglar stalks the city of Gotham at night. But this time it isn’t jewels or treasure she is after: she’s looking for an outfit that will be just purrrrfect for their upcoming wedding. Though this might not sound like much by way of plot, writer Tom King and the dual art teams assembled for the issue really make a visual feast out of the simple concept. Anchored by a ticking clock keeping the audience in the “here and now” by letterer Clayton Cowles, the scenes in the present show us Selina methodically breaking into the bridal shop and making herself right at home. These pages are given a raw engaging femininity by penciler Joelle Jones and colorist Jordie Bellaire depicting Selina literally catting around the store “shopping” while she reminisces.

And in that recollection, Batman #44 injects a real awareness of the character’s history and constantly changing dynamics into the proceedings. Unmoored by time and any particular comic book era, King and regular series artists Mikel Janin and June Chung take us on a walking tour of Catwoman and Batman’s relationship from the Silver Age and beyond, complete with period-accurate costuming, semi-anchoring us to a moment in time. I know this current Batman arc has devoted a lot of narrative real estate to Bruce and Selina’s relationship, but #44 feels like the first issue to really keep its focus on Selina’s point of view, as Janin and Chung keep her upstage of Bruce in all the flashback sequences.

Like I said, fans who have been on the fence about King’s hazy writing style won’t find much to sway them here, especially since #44’s plot basically boils down to “Catwoman steals a dress,” but the focus on Selina this issue as well as the dual art teams really make this a fun, affecting read. King and his art teams really lean into their respective tones and looks, keeping the action in the present focused and tight, while the scenes in the past feel like a half-remembered dream. While it’s a little frustrating on a sartorial level that Batman’s older costumes weren’t given the attention and level of display that Catwoman’s were (especially the one with the yellow disk), these scenes continue to display the level of respect and sense of history King and the art teams have for the property.

Neatly and beautifully segmented between the present and the past Batman #44 finally commits to giving us Selina’s take on her upcoming marriage and her overall, slightly tumultuous, courtship with the Caped Crusader. Though it will never be accused of having the most substantial plot, Batman #44 stands as a loving, well-constructed tribute to the Cat, her history, and her mercurial nature - and the outfits aren’t bad, either.

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