Best Shots Reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE/AQUAMAN: DROWNED EARTH #1, EXTERMINATION #4, HEROES IN CRISIS #2

Extermination #4
Credit: John Cassaday (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Howard Porter/Hi-Fi Color (DC Comics)

Justice League/Aquaman: Drowned Earth Special #1
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Howard Porter and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“Drowned Earth” kicks off in earnest in Justice League/Aquaman: Drowned Earth Special #1, as James Tynion IV and Howard Porter recap how we got here and build on the event a little on their own. With a big Aquaman movie just two months away and a brand-new creative team coming in 2019 for the waterlogged wonder, it makes a lot of sense that we’re getting this event right now. After all, the biblical Flood served as a great way to clear the table for the future - why not borrow that approach for comic books? Tynion works effectively within the bounds established in the issues of Justice League and Aquaman, and with Howard Porter in his corner, this instantly feels like a big deal, even if this story does play things a bit safe.

Alpha issues like these have a bit of a checklist approach to them. They’ve got to let readers know how we got here in the first place, and then once that’s done, inch forward a bit with the narrative so that moving forward this issue becomes the one heavily referenced by editor’s notes. Because of that, it doesn’t necessarily feel like we’re getting a lot of James Tynion’s voice as a writer - instead, he’s the guy who was tapped to do the job, and he gets in and gets out admirably. I think especially when dealing with a tentpole story that features the Justice League, we generally expect to see recognizable characters acting in recognizable ways without all of the nuance that an individual writer might bring to the table, and Tynion delivers that here. This is big picture storytelling, and that works for “Drowned Earth.”

And a big reason that works is Howard Porter. The man’s talent is undeniable, and his ability to handle a Justice League story is well-known at this point. Even if Tynion’s script is a bit workmanlike, it’s clear that he was cognizant of the big moments that he needed to give Porter. We get some extremely satisfying work with Superman and the Flash in this book. Porter leans into his Jack Kirby tendencies in a few places - putting dynamism first in order to elevate the story. But it’s not only big moments like Flash running across water to help out in settings around the world or Superman attacking a monster with a thunderous clap that Porter excels at. The introductions of some of the major players in this story stand out as well, such as Batman looming over Jim Gordon in a flooded Gotham, as well as a particularly iconic Black Manta.

“Drowned Earth” may feel much smaller than recent DC events like Dark Nights: Metal, but that’s by design. It’s an Aquaman-centric story with a scope that requires the rest of the Justice League to get involved while still keeping the core character focus on Arthur, Mera, Black Manta and Orm. Credit to James Tynion and the editorial team for doing a good job catching readers up to the happenings around this event. Howard Porter, of course, remains an artistic force to be reckoned with, and with the gravitas he brings to this event, “Drowned Earth” is off to a solid start.

Credit: Mark Brooks (Marvel Comics)

Extermination #4
Written by Ed Brisson
Art by Pepe Larraz, Ario Anindito, Dexter Vines and Erick Arciniega
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

There’s a lot that could have gone wrong with Extermination, the X-Men’s latest status quo-changing event, but it speaks to writer Ed Brisson and artists Pepe Larraz, Ario Anindito, Dexter Vines, and Erick Arciniega that they’re able to keep this unwieldy ship afloat, juggling dozens of characters with some smooth and effective artwork. With the original five X-Men being hunted by the murderous Ahab before they can return to their home era, Brisson sets up the stakes nicely for the Children of the Atom, culminating in a cliffhanger that feels as intense as it does gruesome.

Over the past seven years, so much of the X-Men’s lives have been about reshuffling - new teams, new lineups, new status quos - but in the world of superhero comic books, these rebrandings can often feel arbitrary and convenient, with little in the way of any psychological shift that would go with such a massive shake-up. And that might be why Brisson’s work on Extermination feels so effective - he knows the time-displaced X-Men must return home, but he’s not letting them take the easy way out. We’ve already witnessed Cable get assassinated by his time-traveling younger self, and with Extermination #4, we see other twists and turns - in particular, Angel gets his organic wings back in gruesome fashion, while Cyclops’ battle with Ahab and his hounds ends with a beat that feels particularly horrifying even to those as well-versed in tragedy as the X-Men. But these beats feel memorable and deliberate, and Brisson is setting up his readers for even more questions as this series winds down.

Additionally, with so many characters to juggle, Brisson deserves a lot of credit for not just shuffling from team to team, but for delivering all the necessary exposition in a way that doesn’t kill the story’s momentum. When young Jean Grey finally comes face-to-face with young Cable, there’s a unique choice Brisson and his art team utilize, which helps break up the monotony of an info-drop - with Jean holding Nathan in telekinetic status, artists Pepe Larraz and Ario Anindito are able to flip and turn the characters around, making a talking-head page suddenly feel much more interesting than it should. But Brisson also gets a lot of quick character moments in the mix as well, such as Cannonball marveling at how much punishment a hound-possessed Shatterstar was able to withstand, or Cable explaining which young X-Man was destined to die, therefore upending the entire timestream.

Speaking of upending things, it would have been very easy for this series to collapse with Pepe Larraz only providing layouts - but it’s a testament to Larraz, penciller Ario Anindito, inker Dexter Vines, and colorist Erick Arciniega that this series continues to look as consistent and excellent as it does. Between Anindito and Vines, there’s a touch of that Art Adams/Nick Bradshaw bounciness to the facial expressions, and as has been said in previous reviews, Larraz’s layouts have that Stuart Immonen fluidity to their action. Given how many characters the art team has to pack in these pages again and again, these guys deserve a ton of credit for never cramping up their pages or leaving any characters feeling unrendered or unfinished. In particular, they deliver some harrowing work in the book’s cliffhanger, as we watch an X-Man’s unsuccessful fight to the death.

While some of the exposition feels more for the readers’ sake than the characters - for example, after years of being told this by other characters, why does young Jean now believe that she and her friends’ presence in the present might horrifically alter the future? - Brisson and company are doing some terrific work trying to bring back the status quo in Extermination. The X-Men have been a franchise that’s been looking for direction for years, but the constant shake-ups have felt too obvious and undeserved - but with Brisson inflicting a heavy cost to these new developments, the Children of the Atom may soon find themselves back on track.

Credit: Clay Mann/Tomeu Morey (DC Comics)

Heroes in Crisis #2
Written by Tom King
Art by Clay Mann, Travis Moore, Tomeu Morey and Arif Prianto
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

”I shouldn’t have let anyone change me.”

Heroes in Crisis’ plot comes somewhat into focus in issue #2. Following Booster Gold and Harley Quinn, Tom King neatly bisects this issue’s story, peppering it with more Sanctuary interviews. But this time as opposed to last issue’s B- and C-listers spilling their secrets, it is Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman who put themselves in front of the camera this installment, spilling out their fears and anxieties. Handsomely rendered by Clay Mann and Travis Moore, enriched by the colors of Tomeu Morey and Arif Prianto, Heroes in Crisis #2 might still be a bit too mysterious for its own good, but at the very least it is an improved sophomore effort.

Two potential killers are on the loose, but the emotional stakes of this issue are even higher. Though Batman programmed the robots of Sanctuary with safeguards which would delete patient testimony as it was processed, the heroes’ secrets are starting to get out in the open thanks to a package sent to none other than Lois Lane at The Daily Planet. I am a touch frustrated that this plot point is buried amid the exposition between Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman, but I am glad Tom King is starting to give us more of an idea of what the hook of this event will be beyond the opening horrorshow.

And speaking of, our two leads get some much-needed fleshing out in this second issue. King is still playing it close to the vest with his take on Booster and Harley, but here they at least feel closer to their previous incarnations, just with a much more sinister edge. Harley gets to shoulder much of the emotional weight of the issue, and she holds her own really well. We get glimpses of fun, cheeky Harley in the issue’s opening interview with her gal pal Poison Ivy, but we also get a more melancholic, introspective Harley in one of the issue’s best sequences. Gorgeously detailed by Clay Mann, Harley stands atop the Gotham Bridge, lamenting her role in the unfolding horror and tracing it all the way back to her origin. The poetic dialogue is given extra punch by Mann’s wonderful take on Harley’s classic costume and the sparse but theatrical backgrounds filled in by Morey and Prianto’s textured, painterly colors.

The scenes surrounding Booster come across a bit more menacing and charged. After being healed by Skeets, a clearly unstable Booster decides to “do what Batman would do” and solve the crime that he may or may not have committed. He then seeks out the help of the DCU’s greatest CSI, The Flash, which… goes about as well as you expect it would. Following King’s harrowing arc spotlighting the time-traveling superhero, Booster’s voice is as entertaining as it is unsettling. His usual playful banter with Skeets has been replaced by a rambling, disconnected train of thought that Skeets, even as a robot, finds discomforting. His confrontation with the Flash is played more like sad beat, despite guest fill-in artist Travis Moore’s kinetic pencils, as Booster winds up switching from friend to foe as he blabs to Barry that he might have killed Wally West. We still may not have a real handle on Booster, but this issue at least gives him a bit more rounding out beyond “possible super-serial-killer.”

Heroes in Crisis #2 isn’t great, but at the very least it is something beyond a drab and bloodsoaked mystery box. We know the hook now, and we are starting to better know the players in the context of this event. I will admit a personal level of frustration while reading the debut. What was Sanctuary? Why did the Big Three need to keep it secret? What’s the deal here? We may not get all those answers during this issue, but Tom King, Clay Mann and Travis Moore will keep readers on the line - at least for the time being - thanks to Heroes in Crisis #2.

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