Best Shots Reviews - WEB OF VENOM: CARNAGE BORN #1, BATMAN #59, MARVEL KNIGHTS 20TH #2, SMOOTH CRIMINALS #1, INFINITY WARPS: GHOST PANTHER #1

Batman #59
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Web of Venom: Carnage Born #1
Written by Donny Cates
Art by Danilo S. Beyruth and Cris Peter
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Web of Venom: Carnage Born is a weird book, and Danilo S. Beyruth and Cris Peter are the perfect artists for it. Today’s Carnage Born arc picks up immediately after the events of the latest Venom two-parter, but primarily serves as a reintroduction the second-most iconic symbiote of the Spiderverse and its best-known host: Carnage and the unsettling Cletus Kasady. Together, Beyruth and Peter create an eerie, atmospheric horror story perfectly suited to writer Donny Cates’ script. Beyruth’s use of shadows and the slightly too pink undertones of Peter’s colors make the little details pop; everything feels a little too warm and bright, invoking a slow-building sense of unease that peaks at just the right time.

Twisting and turning to retcon Cletus Kasady back into the land of the living, Carnage Born #1 won’t necessarily be a great recap of the recent events of Venom, but it also works perfectly well out of context. Donny Cates drops readers in the middle of a cult ritual that feels like it’s straight out of a classic horror film — dark rooms, ancient runes, and hooded figures galore. These cultists have managed to recover Cletus Kasady’s body in the wake of his interstellar demise in Venomized, and know just enough about The Maker’s work in Venom to know Cletus’ bond with Carnage may be just what they need to finally get to commune with Knull, the god of the symbiotes.

There’s something about Cates’ script that feels a little campy, but in a good way; this is peak over-the-top comics villainy, but the team’s work keeps the vibe of the book more creepy than goofy. Together they deliver a great superhero (or, rather, supervillain) comic and an excellent horror comic, as well — which, at the end of the day, any symbiote comic worth its salt really should be. The pacing is pitch-perfect for a horror story, punctuated by jump scare moments that serve to remind the reader just what symbiotes are capable on their worst days. There’s a moment late in the issue where Clayton Cowles’ lettering splashes across the page like a bloodstain, a particularly effective touch.

Given the number of balls in the air in Venom, it’s also a testament to Cates’ skill that Web of Venom: Carnage Born #1 manages to be so engaging and fully-realized as a single issue without having to get outrageously heavy-handed with the expedition. This issue may be primarily about the return of Carnage, but Cates finds ways to deliver just enough context for past events that unfamiliar readers could be fairly comfortable hopping on board here while they wait for a Venom trade or try to catch up on single issues. If you’ve got non-comics friends curious about Kasady in the wake of Venom’s big-screen debut, this would be a good place to start them — the team perfectly captures what makes him such a compelling and unsettling symbiote villain with an impressive economy of visual space.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #59
Written by Tom King
Art by Mikel Janín and Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

One of the many potential pleasures of a long-running series is seeing various elements build upon one another. This can come from seeing a writer or artist become more settled within the world they’ve become immersed in and subsequently finding their footing to tell the story with a more assured level of confidence. Or in the way that the plot builds towards its end-game as the established pieces on the board gets shifted around when everything gets shaken up. Or through callbacks, both visual and verbal that show how far things have come.

Batman #59 is an example of all these qualities from the opening panel, one of Arkham Asylum. It recalls the ninth issue of the series –– wherein the Caped Crusader put together a team that could break into Santa Prisca, and where writer Tom King’s run really got going –– though both have different approaches to their establishing shot. There, Mikel Janín was able to languish in the exterior setting with a two-page splash that was arch, moody and oppressive.

Over two years later, Janín and colorist Jordie Bellaire approach the building with a perspective that’s lower down, as if lying on the ground outside the gates, Batman looming just to the left. It takes up about half a page, with another panel, depicting the gate being kicked open, overlaid and overlapping. It shows how much has changed in the two years since Issue #9. Then he ventured inside with the intention of helping Gotham Girl.

Now? He’s there for Bane, and he’s in no mood to wait for visiting hours.

The impetus for this check-up is his conversation with the Penguin, which constitutes a third of the issue and is interwoven into Batman’s journey through the madhouse. While King has made heavy use of juxtaposition in the past, here his script opts to avoid a direct 50/50 split between the two periods and marks a more successful attempt because it comes across as less mannered and writerly. The two sequences do flow from one to the other in deliberately constructed fashion, though the issue at large is dominated by Batman’s move to confront Bane. In doing so, King’s script taps into, and eventually gives itself over to, a more primal, unhinged –– possibly even psychologically fractured –– anger as Bruce finds his whole perspective on the post-wedding events being reorganised around the context given to him by the Penguin, no matter how sceptical he first seems.

There’s a sharp contrast between the two distinct sequences, hues of moody blue fill the Penguin’s penthouse, while everything inside Arkham is somehow dingy and sterile at the same time. Through it all, Batman seems a darker figure. His entrance into Arkham is that of an angry spectre, the shadows near-consume him as the Penguin monologues and his shadow looms over Bane, whose size is shrunken as he cowers in the corner of his padded cell. All of this, how the issue builds off where the run has come from and where it’s potentially going in the wake of this issue show how quickly the tables can turn when it comes to the power held.

The various nuances of this come across in how this instalment of the narrative is presented by Janín and Bellaire, who are just a magnificent pairing and will hopefully collaborate more going forward. A frequent criticism of Janín’s work is that his characters can seem like little more than posed 3D models. Their collaboration doesn’t completely alleviate this issue –– it still rears its head on occasion, including threatening to sabotage the final beat of the story –– but it does grant his linework a different texture and feel. The sleek and sexy vibe on display in a book like Grayson is replaced by a moodier one, with a more claustrophobic and locked-in approach, where multiple characters are thrown across the panel, the violence having an evident crunch to it as each hit lands. The physicality of this issue works because of how Janín and Bellaire’s characters are more than 3D models because of their acting and body language, even allowing for a more solemn energy for a beat as the Penguin concludes their monologue.

All of this results in an instalment of the narrative which may not contain big twists –– though does have a particularly shocking moment which packs a punch –– but has high drama all the same. Melodramatic and operatic all at once as it given into emotion. Or rather, an emotion – rage. What makes it an even richer experience is how this can function on a variation on that aforementioned previous visit to Arkham, which is something fitting for a run which kicked things off with Calendar Man spouting about cycles. The issue brings King’s run into further focus as is presumably transitions into a new stage of the game being played, all the while showing that there’s more than one way to break a Bat.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Marvel Knights: 20th #2
Written by Matthew Rosenberg
Art by Niko Henrichon
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

You know what’s the best? The feeling of relief that you only need to wait two weeks for the next installment of a story in which you are currently enthralled. In a lot of ways, Marvel Knights: 20th has felt like a sort of amalgamation of stories like Rebirth and House of M with its mystery-driven core and world-changing plots. Within two issues, series writers Donny Cates and Matthew Rosenberg have done enough to distance their premise from the stories that came before, and with Marvel Knights: 20th #2, it’s hard to accept the already short wait for the next book. All of this is assisted by the fact that it is one of the most visually stunning books on shelves right now.

The comic opens with Matt Murdock talking to the ghost of Karen Page about what has transpired. The heroes of the world have forgotten who they are, and the people of the world have forgotten about them. The harsh edges of the buildings and windows that they view from the rooftop is enough to make the world of the comic feel unsettling in its own right. It’s clear, even visually, that something is wrong here. The comic then rewinds by four days, to Bruce Banner walking into a police station to speak with Frank Castle. The interrogation scene that follows is pretty much just the mechanism to get Castle and Banner teamed up for the remainder of the series, but its handled with such character-rich dialogue that it’s hard to not feel completely immersed in the scene. It reads like it has more importance because of how well constructed the dialogue is, as well as how perfectly matched it is with Niko Henrichon’s art. This ultimately leads to Castle’s confrontation of Elektra, and Murdock, now in full Daredevil garb, intervening. And with that, our team is assembled.

It’s strange that an issue that acts as part two to the exposition of the series debut feels like it has as much weight as it does. Marvel Knights: 20th #1 set the stage. Marvel Knights: 20th #2 sets the cast. Both have been handled masterfully enough by Cates and Rosenberg respectively that it’s hard not to find this series to be one of the most exciting things currently in Marvel’s lineup, and with the variety of talent behind it, it's not hard to see why. This is strong serialized storytelling that is benefitting from its serial nature.

As strong as Rosenberg’s storytelling is in this issue, it isn’t without its minor blemishes. The most glaring of which is the execution of Chekhov’s Hulk. With Bruce Banner introduced as a major player in the story in the previous issue, the transformation into the Hulk was always inevitable. It comes to pass this issue as Banner is transformed in the back of a Castle’s police car, but barring a single throwaway line isn’t explored or utilized at all. There being a Hulk in the car is a secondary cliffhanger to the one that the issue clearly lands on, which is that Frank and Elektra can both see the ghost of Karen Page. Focusing on that or the somewhat clunky interactions mid-fight between Frank and Elektra are not to take away from an overtly strong comic, and by the time the issue reaches its conclusion its acquired more than enough narrative momentum to make up for it.

Rosenberg’s script won’t be the first thing readers notice when they open this issue. Marvel Knights: 20th #2 is an exceptionally beautiful book. Niko Henrichon’s art brings with it two undeniable strengths. The first of which is tone. This is a thoroughly and palpably moody comic book. The noir aesthetic allows Henrichon to keep scenes that are grounded in realism while giving everything a stylized enough edge that the existential mystery of the whole thing feels larger and more unsettling. Henrichon’s second strength is in creating memorable panels. Whether it's Castle’s interrogation of Banner, Murdock reaching out to the ghost of Karen, or Elektra showing Castle her scars, there are a number of dramatic panels that strengthen Rosenberg’s story.

If you missed the first installment this series, Marvel Knights: 20th #2 is a surprisingly good jumping-on point, and the air of mystery it keeps afloat is more than enough to hook the new and retain the faithful. It’s going to be hard to see different art and writers as the series progresses, but the strength of the two teams it has had so far and the ease in which these past two books have flowed, that apprehension is quelled. This is not a jigsaw. Everything feels cohesive. Here’s to hoping the next two weeks fly by.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Smooth Criminals #1
Written by Kurt Lustgarten and Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith
Art by Leisha Riddel, Brittany Peer
Lettering by Ed Dukeshire
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by C.K. Stewart
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

What if Emma Peel and Kate Libby teamed up? Kurt Lustgarten and Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith deliver the buddy crime team-up you never knew you wanted in Smooth Criminals #1, out today from BOOM! Box. Lustgarten and Smith offer up a fun, extremely 1999 tale of underappreciated hacker Brenda “Killa-B” Ospira and Mia Corsair, the cryogenically preserved ‘60s master thief she dethaws in a college basement, setting off not just a quest to steal some of the world’s most valuable gems, but a government conspiracy that could really put their criminal scheming on ice.

It’s the little details that make Smooth Criminals so perfectly dated: illustrator Leisha Riddel and Brittany Peer deliver a world full of very millennial (the actual time frame, not the generation of nebulous ages) fashion and tech, full of knee-high socks and slide sandals, staggeringly massive laptops, and a pure nostalgic joy at finding a free ethernet port to jack into at your convenience. The character designs across the board are fun, from background characters like a very Jillian Holtzmann-esque rollerblader to Brenda herself — there are not many larger female characters in comics to begin with, and beyond her shape, she looks like she stepped right out of the late ‘90s, color-blocked shirt and all.

Everything about Smooth Criminals feels a little dated, which is both perfectly suited to its 1999 setting and somewhat refreshing for a time-travel fish-out-of-water story. Everything changes in the blink of an eye these days, from technology to the political landscape, and dropping Mia into our own past gives Lustgarten and Smith a much more concrete and familiar set of cultural reference points to work from. The script doesn’t take itself too seriously; Brenda is a bit of a goof from the get-go, and the debut issue leans heavily into the odd couple vibe, taking time to showcase Brenda and Mia’s individual strengths and not spending too much time on any existential angst about Mia now being greatly out of step with everything she left behind in 1969.

If anyone else remembers Nickelodeon’s 2002 silver screen classic Clockstoppers, Smooth Criminals feels a bit like that — and to be clear, as a person who has very fond memories Clockstoppers, I mean that as a positive. Smooth Criminals is a little closer to the 1998 Avengers (Emma Peel, not Steve Rogers) than Hackers in terms of tone, and that’s what makes it so fun to read. There’s a panel early in the issue of Brenda uncovering the cryogenics machine where she has a mad scientist grin on her face, and that captures the energy of the book so well — gleefully weird and delightfully campy. The dialogue has some groaners — which could just be chalked up to the offbeat sense of humor they’ve given Brenda — but whether you’re itching to relieve the anxious days before Y2K destroyed us all or just looking for a fun read, Smooth Criminals #1 is worth checking out.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Infinity Warps: Ghost Panther #1
Written by Jed McKay
Art by Jefte Palo and Jim Campbell
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

The Infinity Warps offshoots have been something of a mixed bag so far mostly because it feels like there’s a definite ceiling on how satisfying the stories can really be. There’s little clarity as to how long these amalgams will stick around — which in turn affects the stakes — but if you like the characters being mashed up, you’ll potentially have a lot of fun with them. Ghost Panther sees T’Challa denying his legacy in Wakanda and heading to the US of A where he becomes a motorcycle stunt rider, takes on the name Johnny Blaze and, as you can probably imagine, Zarathos eventually gets involved. Writer Jed McKay and artist Jefte Palo are deliberate in their storytelling method and that goes a long way to making this one work for fans who may be a little less familiar with the lore on either side of this combination.

The opening pages are a little rough, relying on omniscient narration to parse some of the status quo, punctuated by some dialogue that honestly just feels a bit superfluous. But once things get going, McKay finds a much better balance. This story is fairly straightforward, and while that does make it somewhat predictable, it’s still enjoyable. You’re getting what’s promised in the title and I think the only thing you can really knock the book for in that regard is that the path isn’t at least a little bit more unexpected. Plus I think you have to have T’Challa (or at least this version of him) to act counter to what we know about him in the Prime Marvel U for the concept to be executed in any way. That’s not a huge ask in terms of suspension of disbelief, but I’m certain some folks will be left doubting the “Prodigal Son” aspect of the story.

Jefte Palo is an interesting matchup for McKay’s story. His general oeuvre has a heavily shadowed bent to it - perfect for the darkness of the Ghost Rider-adjacent story. The first artist that sticks out in terms of tonal influence is Eduardo Risso. Palo gives these pages an extremely noir feel by allowing the blacks on the page to do a lot of heavy lifting. Unfortunately, that does seem to be a bit of a crutch. Backgrounds are rarely rendered which, one some level, adds to the sort of “Elseworlds” nature of the story, but occasionally leads to losing a sense of setting. Additionally, the inks almost seem to hide a lack of meaningful expression work and grasp of anatomy. I’m not saying that characters have to be rendered with exact accuracy, especially as Palo’s style doesn’t reflect that, but a level of consistency is necessary. Palo’s standout work comes whenever Zarathos is on the page, because the design for this version of the demon with its fiery panther skull is really sharp and dynamic. We just don’t get that across the board.

This is a fun little “What If?” and the reveal at the end is another fun mash-up. But readers looking for a really meaty read will have to go elsewhere. McKay’s script is utilitarian and delivers on the premise, but doesn’t work too much outside of that. Jefte Palo turns in a moody issue that that’s fitting for the subject matter, but seems to cut a lot of corners when it could have leaned in and elevated certain aspects of the story. Overall, it’s not a bad comic. It’s one that says exactly what it is, and is happy to be just that.

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