Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN #52, JUSTICE LEAGUE #5, INFINITY WARS #1

Batman #52
Credit: Lee Weeks/ Elizabeth Breitweiser (DC Comics)
Credit: Kaare Andrews (DC Comics)

Batman #52
Written by Tom King
Art by Lee Weeks and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

There’s a line in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ seminal Kingdom Come that I think has often become emblematic for superhero fiction as a whole: “There is a right and a wrong in this universe. And that distinction is not hard to make.” But I’d argue that line has been widely misinterpreted since its publication — and after reading in Batman #52, I can’t help but wonder if Tom King feels the same way. In the second chapter of “Cold Days,” Bruce Wayne isn’t just fighting for the life of Mr. Freeze in the midst of an angry jury pool — instead, King and artist Lee Weeks deliver a book that smartly tests the framework of not just runaway superhero vigilantism, but of the supreme fallibility of crime-fighting as a whole.

Detectives, like storytellers, are all about imposing meaning onto a chaotic and oftentimes meaningless world. But what happens when the narrator is unreliable? When the system we cling to prove to be not as cut and dried as we think? And what happens when the keen rational mind of the World’s Greatest Detective is blinded by heartbreak and grief? King drags readers down the rabbit hole with him in Batman #52, as the Dark Knight grapples with wrongful convictions, coerced confessions, and the presumption of violence over innocence — in other words, the things that due process is supposed to afford society, in lieu of masked vigilantes enforcing their own personal brand of law and order.

In that regard, King is able to neatly blend together a sort of postmodern detective story — a post-mortem of Batman’s own post-mortem — but also a character study of a man who is clearly lost, drowning in a toxic cocktail of modern-day rejection and decades-old trauma. In the case of Mr. Freeze and the mysterious deaths of three women, Bruce Wayne essentially cross-examines his own alter ego, skewering the Morrison-era idea of Batman’s super-competence — the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne might have fueled their son’s war on crime, but King smartly reminds us that fear and grief and shock is still out of our control, and can spring forth from the depths of our psyches to do whatever it wants to us. King is even able to get away with what in lesser hands might be a self-indulgent flourish, as he treats us to quick asides from Bruce’s other jurors, who each have their own stories of how fear and law intersect with each other in Gotham City.

But while Batman’s judgment might be called into question, the artwork here is unimpeachable. Lee Weeks is a modern master in every sense of the word, and easily one of the best artists in the DC lineup — evoking everyone from Kubert to Romita to Mazzucchelli to Davis, Weeks shifts seamlessly between sprawling, bombastic action sequences between Batman and Mr. Freeze to quiet, compact scenes of Bruce in the jury room, with colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser doing stellar work in separating the tones of these scenes with a greenish tinge surrounding all of the Freeze sequences. In particular, the way that Weeks plays with layouts works in nice synergy with letterer Clayton Cowles — there’s a great panel with Batman backhanding Freeze, as Cowles throws out captions in between the punch, the story trailing the Dark Knight’s punch. It really is a master class in seeing a comics team working together.

We’re taught from a young age that right and wrong are simple, easy concepts. But as we get older, we find that our moral bedrock can shift under our feet without warning — that good and evil can be pushed by circumstance, by emotion, by the very order we try to impose on our world. But what happens if the meaning we try to construct is the wrong narrative? Do we get a second chance at constructing a story, of righting this wrong? That’s the ambitious task that Tom King and Lee Weeks tackle with gusto here, made all the more daring by telling this story from the perspective of one of comics’ most relentless purveyors of two-fisted justice. The jury may be out on Mr. Freeze’s innocence, but as far as Batman #52 is concerned, it would be a travesty of justice to pass this book up.

Credit: Doug Mahnke/Jaime Mendoza/Wil Quintana/Tom Napolitano (DC Comics)

Justice League #5
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Doug Mahnke, Jaime Mendoza and Wil Quintana
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The bullet train that is Justice League stops on the wrong side of the tracks for its Lex Luthor-centered fifth issue this week. Jokingly called “Legion of Doom #1” by series lead writer Scott Snyder, guest writer James Tynion IV injects a heavy dread and macabre wit into his first entry with the A-list title, as he explores the worst offenders of the DC Universe. Given expressive and theatrical life thanks to the pencils of Doug Mahnke, Justice League #5 is a neat walk through the dark side with some of the heaviest-hitting villains DC has to offer.

While it is frustrating that Justice League #5 basically ignores last issue’s cliffhanger, which is essentially the grand finale of the story started in No Justice, there is still a lot to enjoy about this fifth issue. Turning back the clock slightly, James Tynion IV starts to fill in the gaps Scott Snyder intentionally left blank in regards to the formation of the new Legion of Doom. Heavy with narration and deliciously capital-E evil dialogue between Luthor and baddies Gorilla Grodd and Sinestro, Tynion puts Lex and his latest heel turn into direct spotlight.

In doing so, Tynion gets to have a lot of fun with portentous narration and a leading man who truly thinks his nefarious new gameplan is the right thing to do. While I would have loved to have been reading the resolution to the “Totality” plot, this villain-focused approach tries something new with the structure while also making the Legion’s roster more than just recognizable villains to match the big names filling out the League’s new ranks. Here Tynion lets us in on the actual plans that Luthor has been making and why he chose the specific new members that he did, finally putting actual plot behind the vague mentions Scott Snyder has been making during the previous four issues. While these fifth-issue detours into evil might click a little better in the collections, Justice League #5 shows, at the very least, the creative team is working hard to justify them and make them fun-single issue experiences.

Art team Doug Mahnke, Wil Quintana, and Jaime Mendoza also really dig into the issue’s villainous turn. Thanks to Mahnke’s detailed character work, defined by Mendoza’s inks and Quintana’s rich colors, this issue has just enough of a separate style from the previous four issues while not sacrificing the title’s overall expressive tone. While there is a slight discrepancy between the script and artwork early on, the rest of the issue is really enthralling due to Mahnke’s tight focus on the cast’s reactions and interactions.

But Justice League #5 isn’t just all evil monologues and dark machinations. The team also makes sure to make good on the character’s villainy with a few macabre displays of power — displays like Lex and Gorilla Grodd’s meeting at the U.N. General Assembly while Grodd psychically compels the delegates to tear each other apart, or Sinestro facing down the gleaming Hall of Justice with hundreds of Invisible Spectrum Lanterns at his back. Both of these sequences really embody the sheer scale and scope of the story of Justice League thus far, but with a much darker bent, committing fully to the issue’s whole premise.

Whether you think of it as Justice League #5 or Legion of Doom #1, this issue is a fun side story that fills in some narrative gaps while playing around with format for a bit. Time will tell if these fifth-issue divergences will be worth it in the end, but for now, I am having fun with this quick jaunt into villainy before the finale of this title’s first major arc. James Tynion IV really steps up to the plate here, showing once again why he is one of DC’s more reliable writers. Along with some engaging artwork from Doug Mahnke, Wil Quintana and Jaime Mendoza, Justice League #5 stands as an entertaining look through the mirror darkly.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Infinity Wars #1
Written by Gerry Duggan
Art by Mike Deodato and Frank Martin
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

If you thought Marvel’s latest cosmic event was already over, you’d be sorely mistaken, as Infinity Countdown was merely the warm up for not-confusingly-titled-at-all Infinity Wars. The cosmic corner of the Marvel Universe has been a great place for some solid events in past, but it’s hard not to be left wondering whether or not another iteration of the Thanos/Infinity Stone saga can work. Have these dangerous artifacts power-creeped their way toward being kind of dumb plot elements? Or are there still have avenues left to explore in terms of character dynamics and how they affect relationships in the Marvel Universe? The answer to both questions is maybe, and that’s kind of the problem with Gerry Duggan and Mike Deodato’s first issue — we need something more definitive.

Obviously a lot of legwork for this title came from Infinity Countdown, but this issue is still laden with exposition. While Duggan’s banter and interplay between characters is fun, this is a talky, talky book - and unfortunately, there are a lot of elements of the story that just don’t work. Far be it for comic book characters to learn from their past, but if the idea behind the Infinity Watch is to split up the stones so that no one knows where they are, it seems silly for everyone to know who has the Stones, especially in a universe with more than a few ways to track a character down across the galaxy. So the plot machinations are really only served by the characters making kind of dumb decisions, which is a bit of a disservice to them.

Deodato’s art is the moody, overly paneled style that we’ve become accustomed to over the past few years. Sometimes that’s a really great way to show motion without redrawing a panel four times, but often it just seems arbitrary. There’s a shot of Star-Lord that’s split into three panels, with the upper third containing only his hair and a thought balloon that wouldn’t fit in the section that only has his mouth. It’s unnecessary to cut that larger headshot up if it does nothing to increase dramatic tension or speed up the motion of the page. Beyond that, however, Deodato is fairly strong — his characters are well-rendered and his heavy inks give the book the level of gravitas that an event book needs. But Deodato’s overloading the book with a style that just doesn’t work and doesn’t fit the tone of the story, making the pages feel more like a hastily thrown together puzzle than a comic book.

Despite having the forces of time, space, power, reality, mind and soul in its grasp, Infinity Wars still feels off to an average start. The biggest moment in the book is a recap from the last issue, and the final page splash is shrug-worthy, especially given the line of dialogue that directly precedes it. Despite the influence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the comics, maybe it’s time to give the Infinity Stones a break and give comic book readers a bit of a different flavor. Duggan and Deodato are well-intentioned creators, but their story lacks vision, and so far only dilutes the “Infinity” brand.

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