Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN #50, COSMIC GHOST RIDER #1, MAN OF STEEL #6, More

Cosmic Ghost Rider
Credit: Mike Deodato Jr. (Marvel Comics)
Credit: DC Entertainment

Batman #50
Written by Tom King
Art by Mikel Janin, June Chung and many more
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Spoiler warning for Batman #50.

“I wish I could give my life but I can’t. I have to give more. My sacrifice is my love. It’s you.”

After months of build-up, we’ve finally made it to Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle’s wedding day, and it’s certainly a celebration of sorts. For the oversized fiftieth issue of this run, DC pulled out all the stops, boasting an arguably even more impressive line-up of artistic talent than they had for Action Comics #1000, with Tim Sale, Neal Adams, Frank Miller, Mitch Gerads, Lee Bermejo, Jose Garcia-Lopez, and many more contributing pinups of the Bat and the Cat. But that’s not enough to make up for a weak scripting effort from Tom King. While the Batman scribe has said this fiftieth Issue is just the midway point in a 100-chapter epic examining Batman and Catwoman’s relationship, it feels a bit unsatisfying to say the least.

Let’s talk about the art first and foremost. Things might get a bit spoiler-y, so if you’d like to avoid that sort of thing, you’ve been warned.

The main narrative is handled by Mikel Janin, and he does a fine job. But next to a few of the more dynamic pin-ups, Janin’s work feels stiff and unnatural - indeed, he practically telegraphs the end because there’s no way that two people so impassionately rendered could possible have feelings let alone for each other. That’s not to say that Janin’s a bad artist. There’s a decent sequence where Bruce asks Alfred to be his witness that works well, and an inventive (though not totally effective) scene where Bruce and Selina see each other for the first time after getting dressed a few pages earlier. But Janin is tasked with anchoring the book between some really gorgeous work done on the pin-up pages that serve to frame the main narrative, and it’s a sisyphean task. Most artists are going to be found wanting when placed next to one or two of the murderer’s row of talent assembled in this book, but trying to compete with all of them really just does Janin a disservice.

And that brings us to King’s story. I think we’ve all seen the “pre-wedding jitters/preparation” episode of at least one sitcom, and King works pretty solidly within that framework. It’s kind of a bore, especially as the pin-ups stop any narrative momentum dead in its tracks. They’re long, tedious and practically anti-comic books - there is almost no synergy between the art in the pin-ups and the words on those pages. King’s doing a somewhat interesting bit with the metaphor he uses about eyes, but it really falls flat when the pages feel slapped together rather than meaningfully rendered with the words themselves in mind. So when we reach the inevitable conclusion that Batman and Catwoman won’t in fact be marrying, it’s mostly shrug-worthy, which is a shame because the end of Catwoman’s letter is some of King's best Batman writing. The overall execution just doesn’t make for good comic books.

Superhero weddings are always tough because you’re kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I think Tom King has added some interesting dimension to Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle’s relationship, but with that comes an element of inevitability. This was never going to work. Trying to work a story into that expectation is incredibly hard, and as much as King tries to acquit himself here, the art jam aspect of the book also works against him. With a more compelling artist onboard and a more singular vision, I think it’s possible that King could have communicated what he wanted to communicate to readers a little bit better. (Just look at his collaborations with Mitch Gerads for evidence of that.) But excepting some of the better pinups, this issue is better left at the altar.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Cosmic Ghost Rider #1
Written by Donny Cates
Art by Dylan Burnett and Antonio Fabela
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Hell. Yes.

Since his breakout introduction in the pages of Thanos, Donny Cates’ insane turducken of comic book continuity makes his triumphant return in Cosmic Ghost Rider. Riding on both a space-faring motorcycle and a tidal wave of unlikely, out-of-left-field enthusiasm, the cosmically and demonically empowered Frank Castle’s story has been a wild one even by the spectacle-fueled standards of superhero comic books, and Cates’ reunion with his Interceptor artist Dylan Burnett does not disappoint.

Beginning with a hilarious riff on Grant Morrison’s iconic introduction from All-Star Superman, Cates gets us through Frank’s admittedly convoluted status quo quickly - but what happened when Castle met his end after getting a face full of Mjolnir? Clearly no corner of the Marvel Universe is too crazy for Cates to mine from, as Frank gets an unexpected second chance in Valhalla itself. We’ve heard the premise of someone being too mean for Hell, but Cates flips the script by having the one-time Punisher be too much for Heaven, as we see him exact his own form of justice on dead demigods too eager to crow about their past misdeeds. “What are you the god of?” Frank says with a bloody smirk, establishing his badass bonafides quickly as he stares down an Asgardian in a bar fight. “Big talk?”

What’s so smart about Cosmic Ghost Rider’s new status quo is not only does Cates have a smart way of organically bringing his antihero back to life, but does so in a way that opens Frank up to more settings than the far-flung apocalyptic future of Thanos. But don’t think that Cates ignores the Mad Titan’s influence on Frank’s (re)development - Cates actually dives down a fascinating philosophical rabbit hole, and with a deft amount of humor, comes out with a really unexpected and satisfying new direction for his unpredictable protagonist.

Meanwhile, Dylan Burnett proves to be a worthy successor to Geoff Shaw’s introduction of Cosmic Ghost Rider, with an angular style that plays up Castle’s human form as a haunted and long-haired figure, while distorting the Ghost Rider’s burning visage as some demon you might see tattooed on a biker’s bicep. (That’s a compliment, by the way, because it is rad as hell.) Particularly once he’s able to start channeling some amazing geometric Kirby tech, you can sense Burnett is bringing every bit as much enthusiasm to this off-the-wall story as Cates is, sometimes evoking a bit of Fabio Moon with his use of shadow and drama. Burnett also gets the sense of humor to this book, and there’s a great bit where Frank’s new mission goes disastrously awry - the look on this tough-as-nails character is absolutely priceless.

As an idea man, Cates is almost unrivaled at the House of Ideas, and Cosmic Ghost Rider is the kind of book that reminds us of his staying power and ingenuity as a Marvel writer. Because of the unlikely synthesis of concepts and continuity, there are few places that this book can go that wouldn’t feel organic - but because of how weird the character is, any and all places also feel surprising and unpredictable. Combine this with some energetic and expressive artwork, and Cosmic Ghost Rider should race to the top of your pull list.

Credit: Joƫlle Jones/Laura Allred (DC Comics)

Catwoman #1
Written by Joelle Jones
Art by Joelle Jones and Laura Allred
Lettering by Josh Reed
Published by DC Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The only real downside of Catwoman #1 is the baggage it carries from a polarizing issue of Batman #50. As the cover warns, Catwoman #1 does in fact spoil a very important element of this week’s Batman, and it’s tough to give any sense of the plot of this issue without spoiling anything - overtly, or through implication. Here goes, though: Catwoman’s on the loose, doing crime and maybe also a little murder, in a little town out of the country with a number of gambling hot spots that might be fun for honeymooners. Or is she?

Catwoman only barely touches on the events of Batman #50 in this issue, and ultimately, it’s for the best: Jones is delivering an intriguing tale of mistaken identity and government corruption that, at least so far, feels as if it can stand on its own as a story that’s exclusively about Selina Kyle, and not about Selina Kyle in relation to Bruce Wayne or Catwoman to Batman. There are gripping emotional moments made more impactful by Jones’ wry humor, and she manages an impressive amount of storytelling in a compact space without the issue ever feeling rushed or overwhelmed by exposition. Catwoman #1 proves precisely why Jones is such a natural fit for a Selina Kyle book - she understands what makes Selina such a compelling character, and is able to hone in on that to develop an exciting mystery that plays to Catwoman’s strengths.

Jones does double-duty on Catwoman to boot, serving as both writer and artist. She has a great sense of timing and a skill for visual storytelling - three separate storylines weave together in the opening pages in a way that never gets confusing, and resolve themselves with a twist that feels like a genuine surprise. There’s something a little rough around the edges about her artwork here, an unfinished air that makes everything seem a little dazed and tired -even Selina, as glamorous and stylish as Joelle depicts her. Laura Allred’s colors give everything the kind of weight you would expect from a city that’s a little run down under the thumb of leadership that doesn’t have its denizens’ best interests at heart; the grays and browns of the city infrastructure are a stark contrast to the bright colors of the Governor’s mansion, further cementing the divide.

Catwoman #1 is an atmospheric exploration of not just a locale, but a new and changed Selina. It’s tough to tell how removed Catwoman will be from Gotham and Batman until Batman #51 drops, but it feels from this week’s debut to be a separate world, with little connecting them but Selina. If that’s the case, it’s mostly a blessing but a little bit of a curse; the events of Batman #50 have such massive implications for Selina that it’s hard not to read this issue and feel a little annoyed she doesn’t immediately get to resolve them. None of that is any fault of Joelle Jones’, though, and the more distance Selina gets from Gotham, the more it bodes well for Jones getting the chance to just have fun exploring the life and times of Selina Kyle on her own terms rather than as a backdrop to Bruce. No matter how you felt about Batman #50, Catwoman #1 is an exciting and compelling Catwoman tale that’s worth picking up.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Immortal Hulk #2
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose and Paul Mounts
Lettering by Cory Petit and Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Bruce Banner might walk the streets by day, but as writer Al Ewing and artist Joe Bennett’s sophomore issue proves, the night belongs to the Immortal Hulk. Continuing a premise that evokes werewolf and monster movies just as much as nuclear-powered hysteria, Ewing casts the spotlight on Banner, bringing readers up to speed with Bruce’s new status quo and scaled-back mental state. But while puny Banner is taking breakfast and struggling with the Jungian implications of his powers, the Hulk is sussing out a rash of unexplained deaths. Given a horrible humanity by Joe Bennett, whose pages toe the line between the dramatic and the monstrous, Immortal Hulk #2 finds a terrifying and compelling tone that builds well on the solid foundation of the debut issue.

The idea of Bruce Banner being a homeless superhero isn’t a new idea. Neither is the idea of the Hulk being an avenging angel of sorts. But I am hard-pressed to think of a run that was this melancholic and introspective on the part of Bruce Banner. Narrating his life as a ticking time bomb, this second issue takes us through a normal “day” in the life of Banner, and the results are pretty friggin’ dark. Armed with Hulk-powered hunches that point him toward wrongdoing, Ewing’s Banner is a man on the edge, just trying to bring some good to the world despite the gamma powered monster waiting inside him.

This new narrative hook along with the nerfing of Banner’s deus ex science skills really makes Immortal Hulk stand out from previous runs. This also allows Ewing to lean into darker, “monster-of-the-month” stories anchored by his two leading men. Both the tone and standalone nature of the title so far reminds me a lot of the Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire era of Moon Knight, another book with a monstrous leading man who fought back new sects of darkness every issue.

The title’s art team also seems to really understand the darker, EC Comics-style tone Ewing is aiming for. Though we aren’t graced with Joe Bennett’s wonderfully Kirby-esque Hulk until the last few pages of the issue, he, along with inker Ruy Jose, and colorist Paul Mounts, provides plenty of down-to-Earth and isolating moments beforehand. These scenes of Banner simply trying to live work well alongside Ewing’s thoughtful narration, imbuing the issue with a strong sense of pathos. But once the sun goes down, the art team takes a hard right turn, unleashing the Hulk with a darker lighting scheme, thicker inks, and tight close ups that really sell his exaggerated facial expressions and looming size. The team also stack a harrowing flashback sequence alongside this issue’s final sequence, doubling down on the title’s darker tone and this particular issue’s brutal narrative twist.

Equally harrowing and dramatic, Immortal Hulk #2 presents a truly scary and novel take on the Bruce Banner/Hulk dynamic, presenting him less as an inhumanly strong force of nature and more redefining him as a gamma-irradiated bogeyman of the night. Al Ewing takes what we know and love about the Hulk and filters it through a compelling arthouse horror lens, and the result is arguably one of the more interesting Hulk stories of the last few years. Better yet, the title sports an art team that understands Ewing’s direction and is working to capitalize on it, turning in pages that look like a prestige TV version of the Bill Bixby TV show, with a liberal dash of Jack Kirby monster design on top. By melding drama, smarts, and bleak morality tales, Immortal Hulk is off to a really strong start.

Credit: DC Comics

Man of Steel #6
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Jason Fabok and Alex Sinclair
Lettered by Josh Reed
Published by DC Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

To write about the work of Brian Michael Bendis is to engage with questions of potential, of capability. A writer with a long-storied career from Spider-Man and the Defenders to the Avengers, the X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy, there have been requisite highs and lows that come with as extensive a body of work as his. Over the years, this turned into discourse about whether Bendis was trying as hard as he could be; whether his more recent successes were outright good or good when graded on a curve; whether making the move to DC and getting an entirely new sandbox to play in would be enough to revitalise his work.

With Man of Steel, questions about being good enough are clearly on Bendis’ mind, as he examines whether everyone involved in this story is doing all they can to properly realise their potential. This issue, which concludes the limited series, continues to show that the change in companies hasn’t sparked a radical formal reinvention for Bendis’ writing, but he clearly has a take on Clark, Lois, Jon, and the rest of Superman’s supporting cast - not to mention hints at how he perceives other superpowered inhabitants of the DC Universe.

In fact, this issue is where a lot of that comes spilling out. Drawn in its entirety by Jason Fabok and Alex Sinclair, the truth about Lois and Jon’s whereabouts are revealed, while Clark intends to put a stop to Rogol Zaar’s destruction before another planet can be razed. In previous issues, these sections were kept more separate by nature of issues having other artists tackling the present-day story, but now they interlink as the story jumps from one to the other. It is a conclusion in that it concludes this chapter of what’s likely to be a lengthy run, setting up a new status quo for the Superman family.

At the same time, however, Man of Steel #6 functions as a suggestion of what interests Bendis - and in this case, it’s focusing on Jon Kent as his parents argue with his space-faring grandfather in the background. The driving concern to these flashbacks is a fear of who we’ll become, that the mere idea of innate goodness isn’t enough to necessarily be good enough. Granted a larger page count to wrap things up, Bendis has the room to properly get into this, with the result illustrating both his strengths and weaknesses. To start positively, his Clark has a particularly caring voice and is so obviously compassionate when it comes to his family. Early on in the debate, Clark tells Jon, “Be your own self. And you are doing it, buddy. Every day.” It’s clear Clark -and Bendis - mean it.

At the same time, the time it’s taken to get to this point feels all the more drawn out. Bendis’ flashback scenes function better by filling in the blanks more than they do as prelude to a story involving Rogol Zaar, but they have been so unsubstantial and piecemeal that the tension and emotion has been hampered. Decompression is something that one comes to expect with reading Bendis books, and while it allows the space for heartfelt moments like a short but poignant conversation between Clark and Lois, it’s also lent the limited series an uneven quality. It’s not hard to wonder whether this would land harder if it were the final issue of five, or even four.

Where Man of Steel has found consistency is in Alex Sinclair’s colors. It has allowed some of the biggest artists to bring their pen to Metropolis for an issue, with Sinclair’s efforts lending their cumulative linework an overarching, uniform quality. And with this issue, it’s clear that Sinclair is a strong match Fabok, even more than he was for Doc Shaner and Kevin Maguire. The detailing present in Fabok’s art pairs well with the heaviness of Sinclair’s work, giving the confrontation between Clark and Rogol Zaar a high-octane kick. These action-orientated pages often involve panels bleeding into one another, while still retaining a perspective that’s aware of the two opponents differing sizes. That affects how they clash and if either takes a hit, it’s evident how much it hurts.

What’s surprising about Fabok and Sinclair’s combined efforts here is how effective their body language is in the flashbacks, ostensibly more subdued scenes. In theory, Man of Steel is just as big a book as Fabok is used to working on - consider "The Button" crossover and Geoff Johns’ "Darkseid War" - but Fabok is usually been more orientated around the explosiveness of action, never having the space to allow small gestures in relative stillness mean something. And while Fabok’s action work doesn’t bring the striking compositions of Hughes’ art from the previous issue, it does have an abundance of heart. It shows through in the way that Clark chooses to get down on one knee in order to talk to Jon, in the way that Jon looks away even after his father has tried to look him in the eye, or in the way that Lois has a hand on her husband’s shoulder.

Despite some unevenness, there’s a genuine sense that Bendis and Fabok are giving it their all in Man of Steel, even if not all of it necessarily works. There’s occasionally a line or a comic bit that doesn’t work as well as intended in Bendis’ dialogue, a word balloon that’s too meta to sound right. Again, it’s easy to question whether this story could’ve been told in fewer instalments, but Bendis’ take is new, ultimately different to the nuclear family core of Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s (and after two years of that, it’s not too brazen to want to play around with it). Man of Steel’s narrative has strained at times to set up at least three books for the Superman line going forward, and a new take such as this could’ve perhaps benefitted from a more radically distinct art style.

Yet these qualities are what give the book an interesting texture to examine the extension of a distinct authorial presence, as Bendis finds how he fits into the DC Universe. While Man of Steel is no means his best work, there’s equally nothing to suggest there’s little effort being put in on his part. His story decisions are not callously made; how much he cares about the Kent family seems evident by how it’s taken this long before revealing the decision made, there’s clear desire to write Lois and Jon, not just Clark. If I’m being honest, these imperfections are what make it more interesting to engage with than Tomasi and Gleason’s run, even if they were more successful in their endeavours. What Bendis has laid out here is the potential for greatness as his run further accumulates, and there’s already enough of a strong authorial handle to feel he’s capable of achieving that - tics, quirks, and all.

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