Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN #51, TONY STARK: IRON MAN #2

Tony Stark: Iron Man #2
Credit: Alexander Lozano (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Lee Weeks/Elizabeth Breitweiser (DC Comics)

Batman #51
Written by Tom King
Art by Lee Weeks and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Hot off the biggest milestone issue this year, Tom King is putting Batman through his most harrowing trial yet: jury duty! Trust me, that only sounds a lot more tedious than it ends up being. King’s run has thematically been about grounding Bruce Wayne in his own humanity - more man than bat, so to speak. And after being left at the altar, it’s really anyone’s guess how the Dark Knight would react. With a hearty assist from Lee Weeks and Elizabeth Breitweiser, King plumbs the icy depths of Gotham’s justice system and comes away with an interesting opening chapter to his latest arc.

To call King’s general oeuvre “character-driven” is probably the understatement of the century, right? The writer tends to eschew grandiose plot elements for more pointed examinations of character and relationship drama. After the failed Bat-Cat nuptials, it would have been very easy to pick up right from Bruce hopping off that rooftop, angsting his way through the city. But King opts to frame the possible rampage (I’ll explain that in a minute) through the lens of a courtroom procedural. It’s a side of Gotham that we don’t often see, though we have seen it to a somewhat lesser effect in Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight.

The difference here is that the court in White Knight is a means to an end - in order to get the plot rolling, Murphy needs to breeze through those proceedings. Here King’s story hinges on the court as setting and plays with the idea of multiple accounts - in this case, Batman’s, Jim Gordon’s, and Mr. Freeze’s - influencing how we understand the story. Sometimes, that plays to our expectations. For instance, we know that Batman doesn’t have a license to perform autopsies. We know what Gordon’s answer will be. But there’s still a lot of tension in the defense’s questioning. If we’re generally on Batman’s side, we tend to not think about the consequences of Gordon breaking protocol to catch a villain. It’s one of those developments that’s so obvious you wonder why it hasn’t been explored more often, especially in an era influenced so heavily by Christopher Nolan’s “realistic” Batman trilogy. Here we see how Batman’s methods can sometimes work against him.

On the surface, this story looks fairly straightforward. But between the defense’s questioning, Freeze’s testimony, Batman’s brutal methods during the night in question and an almost throwaway line from Gordon as he speaks to Dick Grayson - “You’re not him. You’re that other him.” - the mystery begins to reveal itself. Do we just not recognize a grief-stricken Bruce who seems to be taking out his feelings on one of the only married (depending on whether the "New 52" origin is still canon) supervillains in his rogues gallery? Or could there possibly be someone else running around in a cape and cowl, mirroring the Dark Knight’s dark night of the soul? That’s the beauty in the construction of King’s story here, and it’s absolutely riveting when you get down to it.

Of course, King gets a bit of helps in telling his story from artist Lee Weeks and color artist Elizabeth Breitweiser. Weeks is no stranger to Gotham or Tom King. He turns in a powerful issue that really leans into the cinematic, nonlinear approach to storytelling that the script requires. Weeks has to smash-cut the courtroom scenes and some of the night of the crime scenes together, which is a pretty tall order in terms of maintaining the tone and propulsion of the book. But to his credit, Weeks mostly makes it work - if there’s anything to really knock this issue for as a whole, it's that occasionally the segues from scene to scene aren’t always the smoothest. But the acting in this issue and Breitweiser’s clever coloring more than makes up for it - the best little detail being three panels of each of Freeze’s alleged victims. Each one is colored in a distinct wash of either blue, red or yellow. Later when we see Freeze on the stand, we get echoes of those colors - blue in his uninjured eye, red in his bloodied one and yellow in a bandage on his face. It’s a very subtle detail that really adds to depth of the story.

Regardless of how you felt about the last issue of Batman, this one reminds us just how good King can be. He’s helped by some stellar collaborators in Weeks and Breitweiser, but the construction of this issue really sings. It’s the kind of story that’s perfect for the Dark Knight Detective - one that has an actual mystery embedded in it. Freeze is an interesting adversary for Bruce at this juncture thematically considering that the Cat just gave the Bat the cold shoulder. “Cold Days” is an exciting return to form for Tom King that does a lot to breathe new life into the second half of his purported 100-issue run.

Credit: Alexander Lozano (Marvel Comics)

Tony Stark: Iron Man #2
Written by Dan Slott
Art by Valerio Schiti and Edgar Delgado
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

In the hands of Dan Slott and Valerio Schiti, it’s a lighter, brighter new day for Tony Stark: Iron Man, even when they deliver a story that examines post-traumatic stress and the alienation of being an artificial intelligence in an all-too-human world. But calling this the Saturday morning cartoon version of Iron Man isn’t a dig - it’s an assessment stemming from the sense of enthusiasm and creativity on full display here, as Slott continues to open up Tony Stark’s world as a narrative playground, bringing plenty of action and new developments to the table with an effervescence that is rare in today’s overserious superhero landscape.

What’s perhaps the most interesting tactic that Slott takes in his sophomore issue is that Tony Stark actually feels secondary here - it’s a risk, but a calculated one, given that most people on the street know exactly who Iron Man is. Instead, Slott uses that momentum to build up Tony’s supporting cast, with a superb opening sequence of James Rhodes’ harrowing history with the War Machine armor, before splitting off into four terrific day-in-the-life stories of Rhodey, android ethicist Jocasta, security expert Bethany Cabe, and new Stark hire (and audience POV surrogate) Andy Bhang. The economy on display is really something - Slott doesn’t waste any pages here, getting latecomer readers up to speed while introducing new threads of intrigue.

And it’s that human interest that ultimately becomes Tony Stark: Iron Man’s secret weapon, far more than the action-packed main story of Iron Man and War Machine fighting the deadly warship called the Manticore. (Although fans of the Transformers franchise will definitely appreciate the Manticore’s shapeshifting tech.) What’s so engaging is that for Rhodey, having seen what he’s seen and survived what he’s survived - and what he hasn’t - the War Machine is less of an escapist fantasy and more of a deathtrap just waiting to happen. While some fans might cry foul at the usually tough-as-nails Rhodey grappling with such anxiety, I think it makes sense given the character’s history, as well as the breezier tone of the book in general. Meanwhile, Jocasta winds up stealing the show in almost every scene she’s in - there’s a particular heartbreaker of a panel that speaks volumes to her day-to-day struggles, instantly catapulting her to being one of Tony Stark: Iron Man’s most interesting protagonists.

Part of the reason why I’ve mentioned the brighter tone of this series compared to, say, Warren Ellis and Adi Granov or Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev is because of artist Valerio Schiti. This is the most cartoony I’ve seen him work since he started at Marvel, with the rendering of his inks being a little less precise than what we’ve seen of him in the past. Still, his compositional foundations are very strong - he’s got a touch of Immonen with vertical bursts of action, such as when Rhodey catches Tony on a climbing wall or when Bethany choke-slams a potential intruder at Stark Unlimited. While sometimes Schiti has his work cut out for him packing in all the characters and details of Slott’s scripts, he also sings with the emotional beats - Rhodey’s look of discomfort when he’s told to suit up is palpable, and the look on Jocasta’s face during her worst moment as an android is a total showstopper.

With such a strong focus on the supporting cast, the brighter tone of Tony Stark: Iron Man isn’t a hindrance as much as the fact that Tony feels a little underdeveloped in his own book. Granted, it’s still early, but since the last issue also had a singular focus on Andy Bhang as our audience surrogate exploring the world of Stark Unlimited, we still haven’t had a lot of time inside Tony Stark’s head. We’re still watching him on the outside, the way that his supporting cast might - and while the sort of spectacle and technological toys that follow Tony are a fun hook, hopefully we’ll see a deeper philosophy start to emerge.

Despite all his suits of armor, it’s pretty incredible to see how unencumbered Tony Stark: Iron Man is - even compared to Slott’s earlier work on Amazing Spider-Man, there’s a particularly light touch to the stakes that admittedly some hardcore fans might take umbrage with. Still, Slott’s handle on concept work continues in fine form here, while Schiti continues to step up his game from issue to issue. It’s easy to say that the world knows who Tony Stark is - but sequential storytelling like superhero comic books requires almost constant evolution and reinvention. Thankfully, inventing is what Tony Stark: Iron Man is best at - if only we can see what he’s working on inside.

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