Best Shots Reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE #10, SHURI #1, LUCIFER #1, INFINITY WARPS: WEAPON HEX #1, JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK #4

Marvel Comics October 2018 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: DC Entertainment

Justice League #10
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Francis Manapul
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Scott Snyder might be DC’s most known commodity at this point, and it’s easy to see why. After leading the Justice League through a story that enabled more varied teams to spin out of it, Snyder has to once again establish his title as the main event, and he is absolutely up to the task. The writer allows his big story to spin from a specifically character-focused place (in this case, Aquaman) and then blows it up to Justice League-level proportions. A big part of this success can be attributed to Francis Manapul, who renders the DCU in such a specifically iconic way that even the aspects that he adds feel instantly classic. This may only be the prelude, but “Drowned Earth” already delivers a lot of bang for your buck.

One thing that instantly sticks out in Snyder’s Justice League is how he frames the team. They’re all split up handling a crisis or investigating something but despite their different missions and goals, they’re still communicating and working as a team. By doing this, Snyder is able to expand the cast a little to include heroes like Firestorm and Adam Strange without the book feeling overstuffed. We still get the character dynamics of the main squad, but with some added voices to mix things up a bit. And Snyder gives us a good sense of scope by having the heroes spread out across multiple locations — when something does finally hit, we can see how far-reaching it is.

“Drowned Earth” plays more specifically to Aquaman’s history, introducing the ocean gods of other worlds, and that’s a kind of classic level of Snyder escalation. If there are ocean gods on other worlds flooding the Earth with their waters, what does that mean for Aquaman’s powers? Are there other ocean-based heroes like him on those worlds? And maybe more crucially, are there other ocean-based villains? Finding ways to be additive to the DCU seems to always be one of Snyder’s main goals as a writer, and this event looks to be another way that he’s doing that.

What can be said about Francis Manapul’s work that most readers don’t know already? The man is a unique talent who is capable of handling just about any kind of story. This issue is no exception, as Snyder’s script takes us from the Arctic to the Banda Sea to space and back again. Manapul’s characters are iconic and well-rendered. His shot selection is excellent and his page layouts, especially in double page spreads, are great at leading the eye. The designs for the Triumvirate are weird but still compelling. And his action sequences are exciting and stylish while never sacrificing clarity. That’s exactly what you want in books with this many characters and moving pieces. If I have to knock him for something, it’s that the coloring can be a bit overindulgent. Certain sequences are a mess of pastels and lighting effects that would benefit from heavier contrast. But on the whole, this is a big budget superhero team book that you expect for an artist with Manapul’s pedigree.

It’s crucial for DC that Justice League be one of their marquee titles, and Snyder is right at the center of that. Forgive the pun, but “Drowned Earth” isn’t looking to tread water, narratively speaking. Snyder is finding new ways to explore characters that he hasn’t gotten as much time with in his time with DC and using them as a springboard. Snyder is a well of creativity that is ensuring the future of DC’s shared universe by creating events with big stakes, no obvious solutions and, inevitably, lasting consequences. With Manapul backing up his work with stellar visuals, Justice League is the best its been in years.
 

Credit: Marvel Comics

Shuri #1
Written by Nnedi Okorafor
Art by Leonardo Romero and Jordie Bellaire
Letters by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Nnedi Okorafor and Leonardo Romero tell a story of a princess who is thrust back into the spotlight in Shuri #1. With her brother T’Challa and Manifold missing after launching into deep space, Shuri finds herself dealing with the political fallout of the king’s absence. She must put decide to cast away her own desires in the service of Wakanda.

When the solicit for this issue came out, there was some initial confusion as to whether this would be in continuity with the other comics or a pseudo-spinoff of the blockbuster film. From the opening page, writer Nnedi Okorafor establishes just where Shuri #1 sits in continuity, firmly placing it in line with the regular 616 universe. While Okorafor’s take on Shuri does take some aspects of the character played by Letitia Wright in the films Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, those elements are weaved into the story fairly well. Readers coming from the comics are still going to find this more youthful take a bit distant from the warrior-queen under the likes of Reginald Hudlin and Jonathan Hickman, but that’s part of what Okorafor is exploring.

Okorafor brilliantly captures Shuri’s psyche, something that elevates what is otherwise an introductory issue. This is a young woman who has grown up as royalty, who has served as Queen of Wakanda and Black Panther, who has died and returned in a new role as Wakanda entered into its greatest period of turmoil. Okorafor taps into Shuri’s sense of confusion and conflict and her fractured identity, something which comes to the forefront as the issue reaches its climax.

Bringing the story to life on the page is artist Leonardo Romero. Romero’s bold, thick lines give the comic a youthful feel to match its protagonist. One might think that his use of thicker lines would prevent detail from coming through, but Romero packs a lot into his backgrounds and has a firm grasp on the designs of his characters that make them pop off the page. He also frames the action on the page beautifully — a scene in which Shuri takes flight across the metropolis of Birnin Zana is genuinely exciting, as Romero captures the final moment of her feet leaving the ground before giving us panels of Shuri, thrilled to bits, soaring through the sky.

Meanwhile, colorist Jordie Bellaire turns in some beautiful work here. The Wakanda in these pages is filled to the brim with bright colors and warmth. Bellaire makes great use of golds and ambers to convey a variety of settings, including a stunning view when Shuri meets with a secret council under the shade of a baobab tree. A flashback of young Shuri and T’Challa is brought to life in a minimalist way with the characters rendered in white and the environment in red. It’s a stunning contrast to the rest of the book and helps convey the past in a unique way.

Shuri #1 is a good start for this new series. Nnedi Okorafor understands that she is writing for two overlapping audiences, and does a great job in welcoming both. Many comics debuts focus on getting the plot in motion, leaving character on the backburner, but here Okorafor focuses on Shuri, and brings the plot in through her character exploration. Leonardo Romero and Jordie Bellaire give Shuri #1 a bold look that matches the youth and strength of its lead character.
 

Credit: DC Entertainment

Lucifer #1
Written by Dan Watters
Art by Max Fiumara, Sebastian Fiumara and Dave McCaig
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by Vertigo Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The Devil’s hit hard times in the debut of Lucifer, the latest from Vertigo’s “Sandman Universe.” Gone is the glitzy L.A. club setting as the Morningstar inhabits his own personal Hell, trapped by some obscured foe. As far as reboots go, it is a pretty drastic new direction, but writer Dan Watters really taps into an entertaining vein of self-aware horror with this story of Lucifer’s latest downfall. The B-story about a police detective and a haunted rehab clinic muddies the water a little bit, but Lucifer’s tone and wry scripting are very much on brand with the imprint and the character’s harrowing origins in the pages of Sandman. Couple that with some sketchy, charred-looking artwork from the Fiumaras and Dave McCaig and you have a viscerally fun reintroduction to the Devil you know.

When we last saw Lucifer Morningstar in the Sandman Universe one-shot, he has been blinded and cast out of Hell. He was also ranting and raving about his supposed son and his mother, who it seems were lost to him. Thankfully writer Dan Watters really builds on that first appearance, dropping us right in the thick of Lucifer’s new torturous existence. After the introduction of a lettering-based framing device in the opening, handled beautifully by Steve Wands, Watters takes us on a walking tour of Lucifer’s prison. I can also appreciate that Watters quickly establishes that Lucifer is at least aware that he’s imprisoned, cutting away at the narrative fat of waiting for our lead to really become our lead. It’s economical, and does wonders for the focus of this debut.

Less great is Watters’ B-story. As Lucifer goes through another doomed day in his hell, the action then cuts to the dreary real world and into the life of Detective John Decker. Decker’s wife Penny is dying of cancer, and while trying to lift her spirits with a drive, their car crashes and Penny is killed. Decker is then plagued with nightmares based around Penny’s brother and a mysterious rehab center known as Gately House. Watters gives up a few ghosts of plot in Hell, but during these real-world scenes, the action drags a bit. It’s not enough to completely derail the issue, mind you, but enough to make you miss Hell.

Meanwhile, artists Max and Sebastian Fiumara and colorist Dave McCaig make the best use of this bisected plot, giving both the underworld and the real world as distinct visual look and color tone to differentiate them. Lucifer’s hellish prison is rendered like a nightmare version of the The Village from The Prisoner, all bland idyllic apartments and gothic architecture set deeply into sandy paths. McCaig washes these pages with a burnt orange glow, telegraphic the dry heat of the “atmosphere” and the sun baked stones of the buildings. Meanwhile, in the real world, Max and Sebastian take a more grounded, but hazy approach to the setting. Every hallway looks a bit too long and the details of certain rooms are sanded away to almost nothing. It is really eerie, and McCaig’s sickly blue colors and heavy shadows really amp that up, making the waking world look just as off putting as the world below.

If there is one thing Lucifer know all about, it is defeat, and Lucifer #1 puts him way down in the hole in the name of revenge and redemption. Time will tell which one finds him first, but I for one am happy to go on the journey with him, for now. Dan Watters, the Fiumaras, and Dave McCaig really take the character back to his hellish roots, stripping away all the pomp and privilege of his previous volumes to find out what kind of man this demon ends up being. Rawly rendered and wryly written, Lucifer #1 is a devilishly fun new entry into the “Sandman Universe.”
 

Credit: Marvel Comics

Infinity Wars: Weapon Hex #1
Written by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker
Art by Gerardo Sandoval, Victor Nava and Israel Silva
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Marvel’s Mighty Mashups continue with Infinity Wars: Weapon Hex, and while it’s clear the creative team is having a laugh, the jokey nature of this event series is starting to wear thin. In part, this is because so much of this series already borrows from the shaky foundations of Gerry Duggan’s Soldier Supreme — but unlike that series, Weapon Hex is less like a story with particular themes or engaging characterization, but instead feels like an exercise in marking time.

Fans of X-23 already know the story of Laura Kinney, a girl bred as a weapon who eventually escapes her captors. But writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker aren’t able to add much more than window dressing to Laura’s story, as they attempt to graft the admittedly bizarre mythology of the Scarlet Witch to the equation — but no amount of bovine midwives, demons from beyond, or mashups of Magik and Sabertooth really do anything other than take readers out of the story. Instead, Acker and Blacker seem to have a good chuckle with punny spell names like “Hex Marks the Spot,” “Hexision,” or the worst (or potentially best, depending on your sense of humor), “Hexual Healing.” The few times they do add to the mix — like the new character on the last page — almost makes you wish they hadn’t.

Unfortunately, their story doesn’t really have any depth or substance behind that already thin veneer. Even if you weren’t familiar with Laura’s redemption story, Acker and Blacker go out of their way to telegraph both her mother’s rebellion and her inevitable death — but even for 20 pages, this book feels like it goes on forever, because Acker and Blacker don’t have anything else to say other than repeated battle sequences featuring Laura and her ill-tempered trainer Hellhound. Even Laura feels like a cypher in her own book — despite having been bred for a very specific purpose (becoming the host for an extradimensional demonic entity), there’s very little in the way of any distinct choices made in terms of her actions or characterization. It’s a shame, because the book has so much in common with Soldier Supreme, which at least made an effort to show the corruption magic can have on even the brightest of souls — this just feels like one messy pun after another.

Gerardo Sandoval, to his credit, turns in some solid work here — teaming up with inker Victor Nava, Sandoval’s normally barbed wire rendering has softened into something almost in the ballpark of Humberto Ramos. Sandoval still has issues with facial expressions, but in the case of Acker and Blacker’s script, there’s not a whole lot of room for emotional performances as is — Weapon Hex typically is bouncing across the battlefield, claws ready to slash, and in that regard, Sandoval does feel like the right fit for the job. In particular, the way Sandoval renders Laura’s hex magic looks great, and is probably the best justification one could argue about this particular mashup — beyond that, however, the character design just feels like X-23 with her hair dyed, again making the Scarlet Witch’s inclusion to this feel superfluous at best.

I’ve previously compared Marvel’s Infinity Warps concept to the Amalgam Comics of the ‘90s — but unlike the rare mashup of Marvel and DC, these characters are quickly starting to wear out their welcome. It’s not to say that every comic has to be totally serious — clearly Unbeatable Squirrel Girl among others are designed to draw some laughs — but this series feels more like the jokes are coming at the consumer’s expense. The shoehorning of Marvel trivia with side characters like Elsa Bladestone or the Midnight Guns feels less additive and more like vamping for page space — and while not every high concept can be a winner, it feels indicative that no one has really been able to bring their A-game for these half-baked mashups. If Weapon Hex is any indication, this is going to be an event that will be quickly forgotten.
 

Credit: DC Entertainment

Justice League Dark #4
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Alvaro Martínez Bueno, Raul Fernandez and Brad Anderson
Lettered by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

“Now is not the time for fear… that comes later.”

This is admittedly a quote from The Dark Knight Rises, though it’s applicable to where The Witching Hour crossover has led thus far, and where the Justice League Dark find themselves. Nanda Parbat’s time is running out and the JLD are the only ones who might have a chance of saving it. Yet with the scale and stakes growing higher and higher, this crossover winds up losing its themes and particular narrative flavor thanks to overzealous dialogue and even more jam-packed action sequences.

Before we go any further into discussing the issue, it should be said that this is the midpoint of the crossover and reading the two previous parts –– the equivalent of an alpha issue and the latest Wonder Woman installment –– is highly recommended in order to fully understand what’s happened to the team between Justice League Dark #3and now. To the crossover’s credit, though it should be commended for keeping the proceedings contained to a select few titles rather than expanding outwards and consuming an entire line for the sake of ancillary tie-ins.

The crossover picks up following the first JLD arc, with Diana having discovered a strange symbol on her forehead during the team’s fight with the Upside-Down Man. This is a witch-mark, a sigil with which she branded with at a young age and directly connected to Hecate, the Goddess of Magic. Hecate has used these Witchmarked people as stores for her power and has now returned to collect it, laying waste to the current world of magic in the process, with little regard for who stands in the way of her reclamation.

At the center of this plot is the idea of women’s bodies and autonomy being taken away from them as they are turned into weapons for someone else’s malicious ends. As such, the crossover fits with the elements of body horror which Justice League Dark has already embraced. James Tynion IV proves himself capable of constructing an effective scenario around such an idea early in the issue. Another of the Witchmarked, Manitou Dawn, has lost control of their actions and is currently laying siege to Nanda Parbat. Tynion’s narration, in the same style as described earlier, talks of how underneath the Witchmark, she screams in horror of what her body is doing.

This then segues into a short, disturbing sequence of what’s done to Manitou Dawn in the hopes of stopping her that turns both explosive and ineffective. Illustrated by Alvaro Martínez Bueno, Raul Fernandez and Brad Anderson, they zoom further and further in, dialing in on the gruesome imagery before being forced to take a step back by a blistering intensity. The previous parts of the crossover have been colored by Romulo Fajardo, Jr., and the difference between their and Fernandez’s work is distinct. Here, there’s a darker colour set on display, which when coupled with Bueno’s lighter linework, allows for the malleability to mutate bodies.

Of these two sequences, the latter is the more effective due to how it values the storytelling of the imagery. Tynion’s narration is grand, fantastical and out of the moment. Rather than working in tandem with what’s being depicted by his artistic collaborators, the prose seems to lack faith in the clarity of what’s being depicted, overly explaining the situation. At times, the language used would be more applicable for recapping the events of a previous issue, and this disconnect prevents a consistent rush that an action-heavy chapter should have. For what it’s worth, however, Tynion’s depiction of the team is as solid. There’s a surface pleasure to be found in just seeing them together, depicted in the same panel, like one with Detective Chimp wielding a sword as John Constantine clears a path. The group’s banter is pitched at just the right level of weird, self-aware enough of how strange it can all seem without turning it all into something more deconstructive.

Only there’s not enough of it in this explosive chapter of the narrative, which proves how easy it is lose to character specific nuances in the chaos. The punch it packs is apparent, Bueno, Fernandez and Anderson nail a key quality of depicting magic – making its power palpable. Their biggest sequence occurs across a series of splashes and a spread. Taken in conjunction with the Manitou Dawn body horror moment mentioned earlier, the pair’s ability to shift scale is clear. But the issue as a whole reads as a bit too vague and large-scale, with the extensive action overshadowing the idea about the price and weight of magic. That lost quality is what made the previous two parts as captivating as they were, and hopefully the remaining two installments will be able to recapture that character-driven storytelling over being yet another crossover that peters out before the end.

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