Best Shots Reviews: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #3, HOT LUNCH SPECIAL #1, CATWOMAN #2, SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #1

DC Comics August 2018 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Amazing Spider-Man #3
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Ryan Ottley, Cliff Rathburn and Laura Martin
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Don’t worry — he hasn’t brought back the clones.

With Peter Parker and Spider-Man now split as two separate beings, writer Nick Spencer and artist Ryan Ottley put a new twist on classic Spidey soap opera in Amazing Spider-Man #3. Admittedly, this issue is a bit more table-setting than the previous installments, making the 20-page pacing feel a bit more abrupt than usual, but Spencer’s handle on the old Parker luck — not to mention Ottley’s incredible, emotive artwork — makes this third issue feel as energetic and engaging as ever.

For Peter Parker, so much of the problems in his life stem from his alter ego as Spider-Man — but when he’s suddenly split from his masked identity in a science experiment gone wrong, why does it feel like this reprieve is going to be woefully short-lived? In that regard, Spencer gets to have his cake and eat it, too, fleshing out Peter’s personal life with the inclusion of Mary Jane Watson, Randy Robertson, Norah Winters, and Dr. Curt Connors, but also leveraging the dramatic irony that even when Peter Parker ekes out the slightest personal victory, he still loses.

Of course, Spencer’s also able to give readers the requisite superhero action, now that Spider-Man is untethered from puny Parker’s soap opera, as we watch the Wallcrawler tackle the terrifying Tri-Sentinel. (A great ‘90s-era callback from Spencer, I might add.) As Spencer begins to pull back the curtain behind Spidey’s new status quo, it does bring to mind Mark Waid and Bryan Hitch’s run on JLA, which also involved the League splitting up from their civilian identities, with catastrophic results — it’s likely a deep cut for most casual readers, but the similarities will likely not escape older readers. That said, because Spencer has to take time to build up to his big twist, the pacing can’t help but feel a little off — readers will definitely feel the 20-page cutoff here more than usual.

But man oh man, does Ryan Ottley make those 20 pages sing. To be honest, I think I might like his take on Peter and his supporting cast even more than I do his take on Spider-Man’s masked adventures. Sure, Ottley and inker Cliff Rathburn’s hyper-angular take on the Friendly Neighborhood Webslinger is eye-catching and unique — almost a modern take on the ultra-rendered Spidey of the ‘90s — but you immediately gravitate to Peter, thanks to Ottley’s superb expression work. (Additionally, Ottley’s expressiveness also adds a lot of weight to what could have been considered a throwaway scene between exes Randy and Norah — but Norah’s got an icy wit that contrasts off Mary Jane’s warmth, making her a clear frontrunner to be a big thorn in Peter’s side soon enough.) Colorist Laura Martin also kills it on Ottley’s artwork, providing depth and energy across both day and nighttime scenes, making not just every setting feel realized, but smoothly selling us on the passage of time.

While Amazing Spider-Man might feel a little on the shorter side, it’s hard not to be all in with the rock-solid characterization and amazing artwork for this book. It’s easy to say that Spencer is playing against convention by starting his run with such a small-scale and personal premise, but I think that after so many high-concept storylines in Dan Slott’s previous run on the series, a back-to-basics approach isn’t a bad way for a writer to make his own impression on Spidey and his world. Of course, with Ryan Ottley on the artwork, it’s hard to argue that this series doesn’t have sizzle and steak to spare — but putting two talented creators on a book like this is a recipe for success.
 

Credit: AfterShock Comics

Hot Lunch Special #1
Written by Eliot Rahal
Art by Jorge Fornes
Lettering by Taylor Esposito
Published by AfterShock Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

With Hot Lunch Special, AfterShock Comics continues their hot streak of stellar debuts. Writer Eliot Rahal and artist Jorge Fornes serve up a slice of small-town crime noir that feels almost like Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips doing Fargo. But it’s reductive to just compare Hot Lunch Special to work that’s come before. Rahal and Fornes are telling a story that is distinctly theirs - combining Rahal’s penchant for natural yet revelatory dialogue with Fornes’ focus on clean lines and jet black inks.

If the first page alone doesn’t leave you wanting more, this book just isn’t for you. A South Dakota Highway Patrolman stops to pick up a vending machine sandwich. He chomps into it and finds more than he bargained for - a severed human finger. As the rest of Rahal’s script unfolds, we get a quick history lesson before we’re dropped into the deep end of the inner workings of a Midwestern crime family. Admittedly, that can be a lot to handle at times. Because of the nature of the story, we jump around between different periods of time and meet different characters at such a rapid pace that it can feel a little easy to lose track. But Rahal never feels like he’s just dumping exposition on us. These are regular conversations for these folks to have and even the most exposition heavy part of the book is framed really well with a school report.

For his part, Fornes seems right at home rendering the underhanded dealings of the American Midwest. In particular, I found the colors impressive. There’s a tendency for muted tones to really blend together, but Fornes doesn’t lean to heavily into browns and grays without also introducing warmer yellows and cooler blues to balance them out. It helps the book maintain an incredible visual consistency, especially as Fornes has a great talent for delivering realistic backgrounds that feel lived in. Meanwhile, his linework and character designs recall more modern artists like Tyler Boss and Leonardo Romero while borrowing heavily from the chiaroscuro techniques of Wally Wood and Alex Toth to give a real noir feel to the story.

Rahal and Fornes’ Americana-tinged crime noir is a shot in the arm to a genre that we don’t often see in comics if the book doesn’t star one hard drinking detective against the world. But these creators are taking a more long-form approach - building suspense and mystery effectively through multiple locations, times and characters. You will have questions and they’ll keep you reading to find those answers. Aftershock Comics has repeatedly proven that they are arbiters of extremely good taste and this is no exception. Hot Lunch Special is not to be missed.
 

Credit: Stanley 'Artgerm' Lau (DC Comics)

Catwoman #2
Written by Joëlle Jones
Art by Joëlle Jones and Laura Martin
Lettered by Josh Reed
Published by DC Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

It’s been a while since Selina’s Big Score, a Catwoman story written and drawn by the same person – Darwyn Cooke. In the time between then and now there’s been stupendous runs, like the ones written by Ed Brubaker and Genevieve Valentine, but Joëlle Jones’ solo series is starting to show itself as another example of a writer/artist taking the very basic framework of a Selina Kyle story and filtering it through their interests and style.

For example, readers have come to expect a noir tone from a Catwoman series, something reinforced by those aforementioned runs. Selina finds herself at home as a character in a street-level book –– even if her athleticism allows her some verticality in how she moves through those streets –– with a proximity to crime and a supporting cast made up of cops, criminals and the people caught in between. She operates in between these two sides, interacting with both, charting her own path through the law and disorder.

That dichotomy exists in this issue, with cops grappling with their own internal strife about losing one of their own and whether everyone can be trusted. A family of politicians, the Creels, is up to something nefarious, and the press coverage is already bad enough before anyone finds out what they’re really up to. Jones’ narrative keeps these in motion, pushing them forward just to enough to tease at something larger going on. It’s a slow-burn, hard-boiled tale and fitting for a story happening in Selina’s orbit, even if the individual components seem like stock elements in isolation.

Now, these pieces of the puzzle aren’t uninteresting, but Jones’ focus is rightfully on Selina, and so the time spent with her is the more intriguing part of the book. Taking place in the wake of Batman #50, Selina’s internal monologue starts to dig into her feelings and current emotional state. They’re short quick insights as Selina’s attention quickly becomes focused elsewhere –– part of Raina Creel’s plan involves hiring actresses to dress up like Catwoman, and at the end of last issue, Selina found herself face to face with a sea of doppelgangers –– but an extended scene later shows Selina’s not in a good place.

She’s not sleeping. The scene shows her tossing and turning in bed, curled up in a ball, pulling herself closer. This is relayed to the audience in three panels, the first of which is an establishing shot of the full room, making use of a wide angle to properly frame the location. Yet despite this, and how the following panels cut in closer to where Selina is, it’s immediately clear there’s a narrative being told, entwining these threads, but at its most dazzling, the art tells the story all by itself.

This is because to Jones, everything comes down to body language and movement. In the early stages of that fight which opens the issue, Selina seems more like a dancer than a brawler. The bottom of the second page sees Jones and colorist Laura Allred depict Selina with two whips in hand, having stolen one from a copycat. For the moment captured within the panel, she’s akin to a ribbon twirler about to start their routine. The nature of this encounter, having followed one copycat only to find a number of them, might put Selina on the backfoot initially, but Jones and Allred start with her making the first move and going on the offensive, so they make use of the forward momentum to drive the sequence.

On the page turn, it quickly turns violent. Though despite the sequence involving people dressed near-identically, what’s going on is crystal clear. The clean formal presentation from Jones and Allred is there from page one. It made up of three panels, each with their own tier on the page, establishing Selina in one panel, the copycats in another, while the third positions them all within the same cramped, contained space. From that alone, there’s no way to be confused about what’s going on, but it certainly helps that the creative team also ensure the group of copycats is a diverse one, especially in terms of body types.

Jones’ inks are sharp, with Allred’s inks helping to balance out the hard edge. Take that first panel — a close-up on Selina’s face, the green of her eyes being a lighter shade, yet more intense than it otherwise would be due to the contrast. There’s no shortage of the color black in this book, and while Allred shows herself capable of using it to create negative space around a character in one instance, it’s otherwise the book’s defining color. When it comes to this fight, Allred’s colors get more intense over time in order to prevent the book from becoming too dreary and to really sell how hard the hits are landing. Greens and purples make way for reds and oranges with a more inherent intensity.

Jones and Allred’s overall approach has a flatness to it on the surface, though their manipulation of the surroundings is how they create depth. The location behind Selina in one panel is swapped out for a block of panel, while Selina’s shadow is maintained. At the same time, when one of the copycats steps forward into the makeshift ring, the rest of the group almost fades away, becoming silhouettes behind them, forcing protagonist and antagonist into an even more contained space. Treating these fights as individual moments sees Jones also place a certain level of trust in the audience and their understanding of narrative economy. She expects that if they see someone get kicked in the head that they don’t need to see them fall, a following panel of them on the ground will suffice. The approach makes the fight go on longer in your head than it actually is, as you mentally fill in the connective tissue between the blow-by-blow.

The sequence is so stunning, it’s almost a shame when the dialogue comes back in. Other creative teams might have opted to make the entire issue a knock-down bloody brawl; Jones, Allred and letterer Josh Reed know to use all this extra energy to keep the book moving forward as well. Though it would have been interesting to see how they handled the progression of a fight across twenty pages — it’s not because the rest of the story is uninteresting, more that this scene suggests a book more unique and distinct in its construction, more daring in how it tells its story. The creative team’s visual storytelling is so precise and carefully calibrated to character’s emotions that it’s hard not to wonder what this series would like if it were silent and it was down to the art to tell the whole story.
 

Credit: Marvel Comics

Spider-Man Annual #1
Written by Bryan Edward Hill and Emily Ryan Lerner
Art by Nelson Blake II, Mark Bagley, Alitha E Martinez, Roberto Poggi, Alberto Albuquerque and Carlos Lopez
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Annuals can be a fun way to see some different creators take on a character, but sometimes they can feel a bit rudderless with stories that clash in terms of tone and intent. Unfortunately, the latter is the case here. Bryan Edward Hill’s oddly dark story places Miles’ origins back around “Secret Invasion” while Emily Ryan Lerner gives us a bright and buoyant short about Ganke learning to drive. The result is a book that feels extraneous due to the boilerplate nature of both stories and the lack of imagination. The art holds its own for the most part, but this is basically a book for the most diehard completionist Miles Morales fans, and even then, one has to wonder if they deserve better.

Despite good work elsewhere (namely his current run on Detective Comics), Bryan Edward Hill really swings and misses with his story in this annual. He’s attempting to reframe some of Miles’ existence in the 616, but he fails to give us anything unique about the character. Hill’s thesis statement is “A hero isn’t the one who always wins. It’s the one who always tries,” which is fine but he retraces that sentiment by adding additional trauma to Miles backstory. It feels shoehorned in and unnecessary. I’m not saying that superheroes shouldn’t face adversity, but you should only look back if looking back is going to move a character forward. In this case, Miles ends the story exactly where he started, except with one more failure on his ledger. Emily Ryan Lerner follows up that tale with a very light story about Ganke behind the wheel for his first day of driver’s ed. It’s pretty simple and straightforward - played mostly for the joke at the end. It almost feels like one of those old Hostess Spider-Man comics, and it’ll leave you feeling just as satisfied.

On the art side, we get some solid work from Mark Bagley, for all of the four pages he contributes. Nelson Blake II and Alitha E. Martinez handle the bulk of Hill’s narrative, and they’re effective storytellers. That’s the thing about this issue - it’s decently executed, but just kind of dull. There is a marked difference between the energy of Bagley’s pages and the work that Blake and Martinez are tasked with, because the story takes a hard turn away from action for a while. Blake and Martinez deliver effective acting with their characters, but until a two-page spread fight scene,their action sequences leave a bit to be desired. For the back-up story, Alberto Alburquerque does his best to give us a sense of setting but as soon as any action starts, it’s unclear how any of it works. It’s similar to how extreme close-ups in superhero movie fight scenes make the viewer lose sense of the space and clarity as to what’s happening. Albuquerque’s establishing shots just aren’t congruent with the action that happens after them.

Spider-Man Annual #1 seems like it does have some repercussions for Miles Morales moving forward. In a way, Hill’s story reframes Miles’ backstory to hew a little closer visually to Tom Holland’s in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” But the darker twist in the book feels unnecessary - the kind of rote plot development that doesn’t add anything to the character. Emily Ryan Lerner’s narrative is a nice breather from that story but it’s so by-the-numbers that it fails to be at all impactful even on base enjoyment level. If this was either creative team’s audition for more work with Miles moving forward, it wasn’t a great one.

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