Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN - DAMNED #1, EDGE OF SPIDER-GEDDON #3, JUSTICE LEAGUE #8

Edge of Spider-Geddon #3
Credit: Tonci Zonjic (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Lee Bermejo (DC Comics)

Batman: Damned #1
Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Lee Bermejo
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Damn. Well, DC’s mature imprint “Black Label” is off to a less-than-inspiring start with Batman: Damned. While the team-up of Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo on a new Bat-title is exactly the sort of thing that should get fans interested, it fails in just about every respect — the plotting is rote, the genre is tired (yet another Batman murder mystery?) and the art while brilliant in spots just doesn’t fit overall. And in that failure, it becomes something of an oddity. I mean, how do creators with as much talent as Azzarello and Bermejo miss the mark by so much?

The Joker is dead, and it’s up to Batman, John Constantine and Deadman to figure out whether or not the Dark Knight finally pulled the trigger on the Clown Prince of Crime. There's an opportunity for added depth for a premise like this, but the creative team falls into a rut right from the start. The tone and mature readers angle of the story isn’t the problem — I like the idea of more grown-up comics especially with characters like Constantine, Batman and Deadman — but it becomes quickly apparent that Azzarello has nothing to say here that isn’t a cliche.

The narration, eventually revealed to be Constantine, feels like it’s an attempt to be a throwback to the trenchcoated troublemaker’s Hellblazer days but it comes across as overwrought rambling — doing little to frame the story except to introduce some idea of duality. But that’s arguably the biggest mainstay of superhero storytelling and that goes almost a hundredfold for a character like Batman whose rogue’s gallery is primarily made up of some reflections of the hero himself. I wish I could give Azzarello points for his scripting outside the narration, but even that comes across as pretty stilted and lacking any sort of flow.

And while you might be hearing a lot of buzz about his portrayal of Bruce Wayne’s, ahem, “batarang,” Lee Bermejo really is a masterful talent and he turns in some work that is absolutely breathtaking at times. But his heavily detailed style sometimes saps the energy from certain panels, sometimes turning moments into awkwardly ugly parody — Bermejo’s take on young Bruce and Zatanna in particular sticks out as just plain weird compared to how well he renders other characters. The best moments are when he dials back and gives us really stark black inks against his painterly backdrops. Batman escaping the back of an ambulance for instance or jumping out over the Gotham skyline are really impressive pieces of work.

And that contrast is so, so necessary. Bermejo is working with a very muted palette overall, and that’s fine except it renders half the narration completely unreadable. This is in part because letterer Jared K. Fletcher puts all of Constantine’s narration in all white with a font you might use for an office Halloween party — it looks cheap, blends into the background and does little to communicate anything additional about the story. And ultimately that’s on the editorial team for not catching early on in the process.

Batman: Damned is supposed to be one of the first in a new era of prestige format comics for DC, and while the art has its moments, the book really betrays the format’s legacy of delivering some all-time great stories. Azzarello’s script is boilerplate “dark” and “mature” perhaps in the hopes that the art would make up for its thin plotting. And Bermejo acquits himself well for the most part, but there’s a lack of vision in the work overall. Coupled with missteps in the lettering stage, Batman: Damned feels like a misstep for DC’s latest imprint, with this Black Label blotting out any originality in this overly bleak Elseworlds tale.

Credit: Tonci Zonjic (Marvel Comics)

Edge of Spider-Geddon #3
Written by Jason Latour
Art by Tonci Zonjic, Brahm Revel and Ian Herring
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

For much of his career, Peter Parker has asked himself what would Uncle Ben do — but Jason Latour, Tonci Zonjic, Brahm Revel and Ian Herring deliver a perfectly imperfect answer in Edge of Spidergeddon #3, as we meet young Peter Parker and his sidekick, the Spectacular Spider-Ben. Brimming with all-too-human characterization and some gorgeous artwork, this book transcends the boilerplate prelude event, and is a one-shot you might find yourself returning to over and over again.

Ben Parker should have died. If it wasn’t his bum heart that would do him in, it’d be the two slugs a mugger put in his back — but thanks to a quick blood transfusion from his 13-year-old nephew Peter, Ben’s gotten himself a new lease on life as a blue collar, mask-wearing hero. It’s that dynamic that lets Latour synthesize not just classic Spider-Man sensibilities (as well as his stellar father-child dynamics on Spider-Gwen), but also the darker, more stoic characterization of his work with Jason Aaron in the superlative Southern Bastards. The result is something that feels a little darker than your usual Spider-Man fare, but never in an inorganic or gratuitous way — instead, we get a hero-sidekick story that focuses on Peter Parker’s inherent idealism, contrasting against Ben Parker’s all-too-human messiness.

It’s an extremely smart take, as Latour recognizes the inherent immaturity of Peter Parker’s heroic quest — as a character, he’s always selfless to the point of self-destructiveness because he never had a chance to grow up thinking otherwise. But Ben feels human — he’s weighed down by different kinds of anxieties, and watching Ben struggle, fail, and struggle again to live up to his nephew’s sense of optimism is a deeply uplifting trajectory. Yet there’s also a great sense of economy to Latour’s pacing as he tells this story — just across this story’s 20 pages, we get to peer into the Parker household quite a bit, whether it’s Peter offering his youthful suggestions at codenames, to Ben worrying about how their actions are benefitting a corrupt status quo. It’s a thoughtful take that I don’t think we see enough of in our superhero books, and it’s one that makes this world feel immediately real and lived-in.

It also doesn’t hurt that this book is gorgeous as hell. Tonci Zonjic and Brahm Revel are a dream team, and if I was an editor, I’d be thinking about how to wrangle these guys on another project together pronto. Where Zonjic’s breakdowns tee up the pitch, Revel’s finishes knock the ball out of the park — there’s such a great cinematic quality to this book, from the “hourglass” on the spilled paint as we see Ben collapsed on the subway steps to a truly tremendous 13-panel page of Ben beating the ever-loving snot out of Kraven the Hunter. Of course it’s impossible to look at this artwork and not think of Latour’s own work on Southern Bastards, because he and Revel’s scratchy styles feel like they share a common kinship — and additionally, colorist Ian Herring drenches his scenes with moody colors, immediately delineating each setting and tone with incredible intensity. Seriously, this art team delivers the goods in every possible way, and it’s hard not to fall in love with these characters just by seeing them in action.

It would be easy for Edge of Spidergeddon #3 to be a bad book. To just be product, lining a bottomline ahead of a big event. But somehow, Latour, Zonjic, Revel and Herring took a turn and made this tie-in into something special. There’s a lot of love and a lot of thought put into this comic, and it winds up being the kind of read that feels reinvigorating and exciting, even without universes collapsing or any big names biting the dust. Instead, we’re given a story with honesty, with stakes, with perspectives, with conflict, and most importantly, with a sense of redemption. Uncle Ben might not have all the answers in Edge of Spidergeddon, but boy is it satisfying watching him try.

Credit: Mikel Janin (DC Comics)

Justice League #8
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Mikel Janin and Jeromy Cox
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Plots thicken and mysteries are deepened in Justice League #8, or what might better be described as Legion of Doom #2. Once again picking up the reins from regular series writer Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV delves back into the psyche of evil as he details a dark palaver between Lex Luthor and the Batman-Who-Laughs, picking up after last issue’s dual cliffhangers. Much like the first L.O.D. interlude, this issue fills in some much-needed gaps in Justice League’s ongoing serialized narrative, making this detour into evil feel a touch more substantial than the first Luthor-centered issue. But unlike last time, Tynion brings artist Mikel Janin and colorist Jeromy Cox along for the ride, giving this issue a clean, highly defined look and glossy sheen. They say that bad guys have more fun, and if Justice League #8 is any indication, then they were right on the money.

Last month’s Justice League brought along with it the end of the first arc surrounding the Totality, but it also brought with it some truly unexpected new cast members, including old-school Starman Will Payton and the calculating Batman Who Laughs, who was revealed to be chained up in a sub-basement of the Legion’s headquarters. Justice League #8 wastes little time delving more into just why they have joined the cast, but this being a Legion “episode,” it is mainly the latter that gets the most attention.

But that said, James Tynion IV does a good job once again making this issue feel like more than just a mere detour from the main story. Chocked full of clues as to how Will is going to factor into the main story as well as making sure the Batman Who Laughs has a solid narrative reason for being Lex’s dangerous confidant, Tynion again fills in some critical gaps in the main story, which is still moving so fast it sometimes forgets to dole out important exposition. Meaning that with the breakneck pace of the action in the main story, certain plot details often go either unnoticed or barely elaborated on. But these Legion interludes, however, move slow enough to let their plot points breathe and come across clearly, filling in gaps that the main story flies over at super speed.

Tynion also smartly uses this detour to set up some crucial bits for the incoming “Drowned Earth” crossover. While Lex and the Batman Who Laughs are doing their best Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham impressions, the consistently wonderful pairing of Cheetah and Black Manta are out in the world getting evil done. Immaculately blocked by artists Mikel Janin and Jeromy Cox, the deadly pair lead a violent assault on a Newfoundland harbor that holds a hidden god. Not only does this scene give two breakout villains a chance to shine beyond the Luthor of it all, but it also displays Tynion’s commitment to making these issues truly matter in the scheme of the overall story. The last Doom-centered issue was fun, but a bit slight for my taste, but Justice League #8 avoids that trap simply by keeping its eye on the future.

The above mentioned scene is also a dynamite display of artistic power from Mikel Janin and Jeromy Cox. The pair are really impressive throughout this issue, opening with a concise rendering of Will Payton’s new Totality-infused origin and then getting much, much bigger from there. Stepping out of the shadows of Gotham City, Janin’s lithe lines and powerful character models really suit the godlike forms of the League and the imposing figures of the Legion. Both qualities are on full display in the issue’s opening double-page splash, the Justice League moving against the screaming face of Payton and his missing memories, followed by the villains getting a tightly packed walkthrough of Lex’s multiple security measures containing the creepiest Batman from the Dark Multiverse. Couple these splash pages with a gruesome twosome of Cheetah and Black Manta running roughshod over a coastal stronghold, and you have some cracking visuals to compliment Tynion’s substantial script.

I was a bit skeptical about these Legion-centric interludes, but I am ready to eat my words after reading Justice League #8. Moving away from fun diversion and into more essential territory, James Tynion IV, Mikel Janin, and Jeromy Cox provide readers a solid look at the future of the warring super-teams and the direction of their incoming stories. The wrong side of the tracks has never looked better than it does than in Justice League #8.

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