Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN #53, EXTERMINATION #1, EDGE OF SPIDER-GEDDON #1

"Extermination #1" variant
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Mark Brooks (Marvel Comics)

Extermination #1
Written by Ed Brisson
Art by Pepe Larraz and Marte Gracia
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Remarkably, they stuck around for six years, but the story of the time-displaced Original Five X-Men is coming to a close. Endings for the team have been teased by various creators over the years, but writer Ed Brisson and artist Pepe Larraz will be the ones who get to pull the proverbial trigger. But with a new Uncanny X-Men on the horizon, what does this really mean for the X-line? Despite the relative ridiculousness of having the Original Five running around the Marvel Universe, they did introduce new wrinkles to continuity and allowed writers to update (or sort of reset) characterizations that had seemed all but crystallized at this point. And with a title as loaded as “Extermination,” could the story satisfy a group of fans as fickle and proverbially unhappy as X-Men fans?

Warning: some light spoilers ahead.

There are no answers to the questions asked above - not yet anyway. But Brisson does a good job setting the stage for the event. The ruined future that is a result of the Original Five’s displacement has been teased along through a few different titles now, and we get a more complete picture here. And as we’ve seen before, folks from the future are pretty keen on heading back in time to make sure their apocalypse is avoided. For a bunch of a characters who brought back a sense of what “classic X-Men” is, this is a very classic X-Men set-up. The machinations of the rest of the plot are sure to leave some fans crying foul, but that’s the X-Men way - kill your darlings just as the drama dials up.

That said, Brisson’s working in some extremely well-worn tropes. The surprises are so telegraphed that they feel inevitable, even if the methods are slightly unexpected. Even the big reveal at the end feels obvious when it comes. That’s where I go back and forth on Brisson’s work. He’s clearly skilled enough to keep us hooked into a solid X-Men yarn, but by the end, it just feels like more of the same. Ironically, the last somewhat refreshing thing the X-line did was bring the Original Five back, but since the end of Bendis’ run they’ve been stuck in a rut of competing with Inhumans and trying to recapture what made them Marvel’s premier superhero squad for the ‘80s and ‘90s. The latter continues.

Pepe Larraz turns in a decent outing for his part. Across Marvel’s entire publishing line, he’s become one of the most consistent talents, and that’s something of a blessing and a curse. His work has a tendency to feel very static even when characters are in action poses which is a shame because his character work itself is solid. I like his expression work on the whole. His anatomy is good. And when he leans into his background work, as in the scene featuring Cyclops and Bloodstorm’s date, it does a great job establishing the setting. However, his thick black outlines around his characters adds a layer of unnatural separation between them and their surroundings in spots. Couple that with some odd panel layout choices and I don’t get the sense that Larraz is necessarily the most effective storyteller on his own. Marte Gracia’s color work is effective enough. But I fail to see the reasoning behind some of his choices as well. (Get ready for, admittedly, the nitpickiest of nitpicks.) There’s a specific green, yellow, red sequence over the course of three panels that has good energy, but given the general meaning of those colors when put together, it almost feels like something is trying to be communicated. It stands out, but probably not in the way it was meant to. But Gracia absolutely doesn’t hurt the book in any way.

Overall, Extermination #1 lives up to its title, but to call it the “Next Big X-Men Epic” seems like a big oversell. Brisson’s been tasked with clearing the table a little bit before giving way to the new Uncanny relaunch and thankfully, he’s doing his work quickly. Fans who complain about decompression will be happy to find little of that here and that’s to the book’s advantage given what we know about it. If this truly is the beginning of the end for the Original Five, it might be the end of the last great innovation the X-line has had in the last decade. It feels a little bit unceremonious, but at least they’re ripping the bandaid off quickly.

Credit: Lee Weeks/Elizabeth Breitweiser (DC Comics)

Batman #53
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: 8 out of 10

“After my parents died... I sought transcendence. I found Batman.”

It’s easy for Gotham City — and for comic book readers — to believe in the Dark Knight. But can we say we truly worship him?

The blurring line between trust, faith, and belief is the heart of Tom King’s philosophical proof in Batman #53 — and to his credit, King is such a talented writer that he almost gets away with it. But with this courtroom drama, I’d argue that King pushes on our suspension of disbelief just a few steps too far in this ambitious conclusion to “Cold Days,” as he and artist Lee Weeks create a thought-provoking exercise that melts a bit under the harsh light of scrutiny.

For three issues now, Bruce Wayne has found himself at the crossroads between law and order and the shadowy activities of his caped alter ego — with Mister Freeze’s life on the line, has Gotham City given up reasonable doubt thanks to the ultra-competence of the World’s Greatest Detective? Yet here, King dives into the uncertain waters of religion as the bedrock of unwavering, unquestioning faith — and no matter how he dresses Batman’s grandiose battles over life and death, it’s hard to frame this all-too-human character as God in a cape.

While King then nimbly deconstructs this argument, with Bruce reminding his fellow jurors that Batman is just as fallible as anyone, it’s all still a logic game — if this is true, then this also must be true, and so on and so forth. Framing Bruce Wayne as an obsessed man whose fixations can’t distract him any longer is a savvy choice — but after last issue’s smart debate on due process and reasonable doubt, the use of religious metaphor feels perhaps overambitious, given that this part of King’s proof is built up only to be immediately broken down. It’s essentially a strawman argument — told beautifully, but given that this story is all about the argument, it can’t help but be a strawman all the same.

But perhaps I’m looking too deeply into the mechanics of the argument — that I’m overlooking the actual story itself. This is where King and Weeks are operating at their peak, almost like a magician pulling a classic sleight-of-hand, or an attorney playing a jury like a fiddle — while King is holding our attention with Bruce Wayne’s argument, there’s a particularly poignant two pages, where we watch Batman staring up into the night, lost like a child, followed by a page swallowed almost entirely by darkness, with just the faintest image of Catwoman slinking away, or another image of Bruce staring up into the heavens, acting as King’s modern-day Job questioning God himself. But it’s Weeks’ imagery that imbues Batman #53 with emotion beyond the intellectual exercise, with one small moment of Bruce hiding his face in his hands, almost having a dissociative episode thanks to his overwhelming grief.

With superhero comics being so writer-driven, it’s easy enough for the artist to get overlooked — let alone the colorist and letterer. But Elizabeth Breitweiser and Clayton Cowles have added so much to this arc, with their contributions being actual design choices for the series rather than something utilitarian or, even worse, pushed to being homogenized. For Breitweiser, the juggling act she has is maintaining a sense of tone and place while having certain flourishes to her work — for example, shifting from the yellows and greens of the courtroom to a dramatic two-page sequence of Batman’s greatest rogues, saturated with strong purples, blues, reds and greens. Cowles, meanwhile, has his captions inhabit space in perfect balance with Week’s layouts — the aforementioned Catwoman scene is a particular standout, as Bruce’s lamentations trickle down the page like rain.

When you boil it down to its essence, “Cold Days” is a persuasive essay just as much as it is a piece of art — and both of those things might better describe this arc than an actual story. It is for certain ambitious, and an engaging way to pull back the curtain of how super-powered vigilantism might interact with everyday law and order in the real world. So perhaps I’m the hung jury here — in love with the execution, even though I can’t believe in the central argument of this arc. Even King’s questioning of Batman’s fallibility is predetermined — while Batman was wrong at the outset, he’s still correct in presuming Mister Freeze’s actual innocence. Perhaps we know the Dark Knight too well — that no matter his importance as a symbol, he’s just a man. (If anything, that inherent humanity is the reason Batman resonates as a symbol.) But perhaps King is onto something here — we as comic book readers seek escape, seek transcendence, week in and week out. But no matter what, no work is perfect — every piece of art has flaws.

It’s human. It’s fallible. It’s messy. It’s Batman. And maybe that’s the only verdict that matters.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Edge of Spider-Geddon #1
Written by Jed MacKay
Art by Gerardo Sandoval and Brian Reber
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

It’s undeniable that Edge of Spider-Geddon #1 provides readers with a fun romp through with the Anarchic Spider-Man’s iteration of New York. There’s a lot of action to be found in these pages, and writer Jed MacKay includes a mid-story twist that gives elevates the rest of the comic. Artist Gerardo Sandoval’s work on the more subdued panels in the issue are fantastic, and help give Spider-Punk’s world a distinct aesthetic. While positives are easy to spot in this comic, it is nonetheless mired by a lack of consistency that can’t help but hobble the more entertaining elements of the book.

Hobie Brown, the Spider-Man of his universe, is an anarchist. MacKay doesn’t write him with total ignorance of his character’s perspective — Hobie mentions communes and another character talks about the bourgeoisie — but it is interesting the Anarchic Spider-Man’s foe, aside from the extra-dimensional Kang, is his world’s Annihilation Wave rather than some unrestrained capitalist or oligarchal entity. Of course, this isn’t the Kang we know, but the Kang of 2099, a cyberpunk plutocrat who appears to own various multiverse heroes as intellectual property for low-profit comic books and high-profit films and merchandising. That’s about as reflective as the comic gets with the material, opting instead for a sometimes confusing and difficult-to-follow sequence of fights between Spider-Punk and what seems like commercial anarchy catch-phrase spouting plush dolls. A recurring bit in the comic is Hobie’s fury at being called “Spider-Punk” as opposed to “Spider-Man.” In any other context, this would seem like just a cute recurring joke, but around dialogue of the marketability of revolution, it seems on the nose. Hobie gets boiled down to his brand (“Punk”) and loses, in the eyes of his attempted captor, his humanity (“Man”).

From an entertainment angle, the comic peaks when this world’s Hulk gets introduced. Everything in Spider-Punk’s universe has a musical motif, from the Annihilation Wave being huge surf rock aficionados to Hobie’s depictions with a guitar. It’s fitting, then, that this extends to the mechanics of Hulkdom. Banner can’t transform into the Hulk unless he listens to a specific cassette. It’s the kind of creative worldbuilding that made the original Edge of Spider-Verse books so fun, and is weird and exciting enough to stand out as one of the more memorable moments in this book.

The coding of several of the characters through visual and dialogue markers is distinct enough that it seems as though the comic wants to talk about heavier subjects than it does, but then shrugs and moves on with its prequel event machinations. Thor, for instance, is a villain in this world, and his visual signifiers and characterization make him a pretty obvious stand-in for a modern fascist slob. The odal symbol on his forehead is a widely recognized symbol of hate groups, and the positioning of the mark on Thor’s forehead quickly conjures up images of Charles Manson’s swastika tattoo. Modern white supremacist fascists’ fixation on Nordic mythology and whiny self-entitled tendencies juxtaposed with Thor telling Hobie that his power was inherited to him by his forefather Odin makes for a few panels of comic storytelling that does more interesting political commentary than most superhero books.

The early portion of Kang’s interactions with Hobie is also interesting thematically. Progressive ideals are marketable concepts, and Kang wants to sell the idea of revolution using Hobie. He makes a point that it’s a corporately tweaked version of his anarchism, and that he doesn’t want to challenge anybody’s personal comfort or impulse to consume. Real resistance makes people feel bad for being complacent. Market-friendly resistance makes people feel good for not being cartoonishly outwardly evil. We aren’t too far from it now — Kendall Jenner once stopped police brutality by cracking open a Pepsi. Speaking of police: the Captain America of this world, Captain Anarchy, is adorned in a costume that closely resembles police riot gear and with very cop-like sunglasses, despite being a supposed anarchist and ally to Spider-Punk. Like Thor and the dialogue surrounding the marketability of resistance, it’s on-the-nose enough to seem deliberate, but not given enough time for exploration, making it another frustrating thematic non-starter.

In the smaller moments where these thematic elements are given a brief moment to breathe, Sandoval’s pencil and ink work are fantastic. He gives his world a palpable sense of grit, but it never quite seems like a dystopia, which is fitting. This extends to his panel construction as well. It’s distressed enough to give it a DIY quality, but not so much that the comic feels as though it's physically falling apart. It’s in the large action scene that covers much of the middle of the comic that things become difficult to follow. New York as a physical space feels lost in the shuffle and it becomes a bit much for readers’ eyes to take in. Colorist Brian Reber does a commendable job throughout the comic. The middle feels like there is too much clashing with the tones used to color the world, but when you get to see the city from the alleyways, it’s vivid and moody.

There are the components for a great comic here, and parts of it reflect a huge amount of thought going into narrative and visual choices. While the ending twist with the Hulk is good enough to save the comic from being overtly bad, it’s hard to not feel deflated by a comic that seems to not want to spend too much time in any one space. To an extent that makes sense as this is functionally a reintroduction to Hobie Brown and just a snapshot of his world, but the whole ordeal ends up feeling more like a series of moments than a consistently connected story. Without having said much, the comic gives a lot to talk about, but the comic also doesn’t seem particularly interested in making statements. It just wants to get Hobie to a portal.

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