Best Shots Reviews: AQUAMAN/ JUSTICE LEAGUE - DROWNED EARTH #1, RETURN OF WOLVERINE #1, More

DC Comics November 2018 solicitations
Credit: DC Entertainment
Credit: DC Entertainment

Aquaman/Justice League: Drowned Earth #1
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Francis Manapul, Howard Porter, Scott Godlewski, and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

If you’ve ever imagined Superman in an eyepatch and a studded leather jacket, then Aquaman/Justice League: Drowned Earth has been the crossover event for you. Yet as we reach the spectacular finale of this aquatic adventure, it’s clear that’s its about way more than the Man of Steel serving up some mid-’90s pirate realness. It’s the blockbuster finale to one era of Aquaman and the start of something new for Arthur Curry and his Atlantean cohort.

Although writer Scott Snyder drops us smack bang in medias res, and this being the final issue in a saga that’s been running across Justice League and Aquaman, this conclusion feels surprisingly accessible. Given that this is also an entrée to a new creative team coming on board Aquaman, major props need to go to Snyder for giving new readers everything they need to know while still delivering a suitably epic conclusion. With half of the Justice League now transformed into fish-people, a depowered Aquaman must face Black Manta and restore the Earth to something a little less wet.

Tying up a whole lot of concurrent storylines is something of a Snyder specialty, and here he uses the same savvy that has made Batman and Justice League such fan favorites. Make no mistake: this issue is long, and it feels like there’s a lot packed in. Even when eliciting giggles every time someone mentions Clarion the Cosmic Conch, there’s still a cohesive feeling to these varied threads. In any other title, Wonder Woman battling Cheetah at the center of the Earth would feel like it has stepped in from another book entirely. Here it’s pretty much par for the explosive course.

Matching this scale is the art team of Francis Manapul, Howard Porter, Scott Godlewski, and Hi-Fi. This is, after all, an issue in which the giant pink tentacles of the Death Kraken descend from the heavens like some bizarre stepchild of Lovecraft and Jim Stalin. In another moment, a single page depicts a tentacle ripping through a ship with an onomatopoeic “CRASH” that sends Arthur and Mera flying. Detailed and dynamic, it’s a true showstopper of a moment.

As is the nature of these beasts, there are occasional panels where the art stumbles a bit - the odd close-up of Arthur’s face, for example - but these are minor quibbles. Having said that, later in the issue Mera reaches out to communicate across the globe with the Cosmic Conch (*giggle*). Surrounded by fragments of curved panels and a myriad of colors by Hi-Fi, it’s got as much of a wow factor as any Multiversal Crisis rift.

As the DC mothership gears up for Aquaman to headline a major film, and a new creative team in the form of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Robson Rocha dive into the pool, Aquaman/Justice League: Drowned Earth is a perfect ship to lead us there. Or as Wonder Woman puts it: “Whatever strange sea he’s sailing, it’s off the known map… in completely uncharted waters.”

Credit: Marvel Comics

Return of Wolverine #3
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Declan Shalvey and Laura Martin
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

We’re three issues into Return of Wolverine, and so far it’s proving to be the communion wafer of comic books - bland and unfulfilling but supposedly symbolic and meaningful. There’s a workmanlike quality to Charles Soule and Declan Shalvey’s output that makes the whole thing seem like a non-event. The issue is fairly straightforward: after escaping the mysterious organization Soteira, an amnesiac Logan is hunting the villainous Persephone looking for answers, but the X-Men have finally tracked him down and they’re eager to find their friend. But it’s stakes and direction are weirdly unclear. There has been a sense of history present - the first issue attempted to trade on the mystery and intrigue present in Barry Windsor Smith’s “Weapon X,” while the second issue arguably bore some resemblance to the classic Uncanny X-Men #133 - but this story buckles under the weight of that history, a lack of narrative intent and its own attempts to do far too much.

With stories like this, there is a pressure to add a new classic to the canon. We saw this with Phoenix Resurrection as well - a story attempting to bring not only a character back to the fold but recognize that their entire history has come along with them, especially for readers who may be less familiar with the nuances of that backstory. The problem is that Wolverine hasn’t actually been gone that long, and so much of that history is irrelevant to enjoying the character (sorry, Romulus). So instead of a work that brings back the most enduring version of a character, we get something that attempts to contextualize the character within their own history while also being additive to the mythos. In the case of Logan and this creative team, that’s biting off a little more than one can chew in a lot of ways.

In three issues (not counting the bevy of tie-ins that feel largely irrelevant to this story), Soule has only given us the foggiest notion of a threat and doesn’t seem interested in answering any questions within the narrative unless it’s to somewhat explain the random series of events we’re treated to on the page. And amidst a barebones narrative thrust, Soule puts us inside Logan’s head as he quite literally unlocks different aspects of his personality. It would almost seem like a pretentious analysis of the character’s history if it wasn’t so mishandled - but at the end of the day, even with all these different facets of the character to choose from, Soule doesn’t have anything to actually say about Wolverine. Arguably, that’s been the problem with his work on the character historically, not just with this arc.

Artist Declan Shalvey doesn’t do Soule any favors, either. His linework is as dull as the script. His page layouts are mostly the same as he opts for wide panel after wide panel with little regard for the action. This leads to bizarre perspectives in some shots or dead fish expression work in others. What’s so frustrating is that not only has Shalvey made some great comic books in the past — he’s honestly made some great comic books recently. But Return of Wolverine isn’t one of them, because it feels like a hastily finished homework assignment more than a piece of art that is deliberate and intentional.

Soule and Shalvey haven’t built any substantial or meaningful intrigue or mystery into this story - two things that many would consider hallmarks of the Wolverine character. Return of Wolverine has been a disappointment so far to say the least. This is a team of talented creators not working to their potential and not finding a way to make one of Marvel’s greatest characters a marquee event. We always knew Wolverine wouldn’t be dead forever but this creative team isn’t able make us care that he’s back.

Credit: DC Entertainment

Heroes in Crisis #3
Written by Tom King
Art by Clay Mann, Lee Weeks, and Tomeu Morey
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

When talking about heartbreak and tragedy, the usual metaphors people use are about wounds and scars. But in the case of Tom King’s Heroes in Crisis, I can’t help but think about the imagery of infection. Of injuries that won’t close - of bodily insults so poisonous that we won’t let them heal, constantly reopening them even as we desperately try to staunch the bleeding.

Of course, King also takes these metaphors and literalizes them in his third issue, as we finally catch a glimpse of the brutal attack on the superhero retreat known as Sanctuary. Echoing the senseless shooting violence we see in the headlines, as well as the ever-cycling pathologies we internalize in our heads, Heroes in Crisis continues to be a well-produced but bleak read, even if its general themes still feel murky and obscured.

In his work on Batman, Mister Miracle, and even The Vision, King has explored the emotional traps that people build for themselves - with the most resilient material being that of trauma, a mortar that constantly reinforces itself with repeating (and often intrusive) memories. Which makes the setting of Heroes in Crisis feel like the cruelest cut of all - in trying to help heroes overcome the lingering stresses of their larger-than-life professions, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have inadvertently created a prison just as terrible as Arkham or Iron Heights, where Kryptonian technology and Amazonian compassion come together to create holographic chambers that do little to desensitize, but instead trap characters like Lagoon Boy, Booster Gold and Wally West in their most painful fantasies. King also does a savvy move with time thanks to his confessional-style introductions of the characters, showing that the trajectory for heroes in Sanctuary is far from sunny -while Booster Gold already enters the facility in a traumatized daze, you see that Lagoon Boy is still replaying his near-death experience with the Teen Titans, months after he’s checked in.

By veering away from the central mystery of who attacked Sanctuary, King simultaneously gets to show the strengths and the limitations of his core conceit. For example, you can feel the enormous weight on Lagoon Boy’s shoulders, as he forces himself to endure laser blasts hundreds of times in a vain effort to get past his psychological scars; this sort of total psychic collapse in the face of violence and death feels like something that King could have written back in his days of Omega Men, this type of borderline dissociation as Lagoon Boy asks out loud if one day he’ll realize that the lasers are fake, and that he is still real. That of course makes his inevitable so much bleaker - when Lagoon Boy falls, he laughs, not because his hypothesis proved true, but because he’s realizing his death is real, and he won’t be for much longer. It’s a tone that might be too much for some, but one I felt was particularly dramatic.

But on the other hand, it makes the pacing of said issue feel a bit decompressed. This may be in part because Wally and Booster’s own unique forms of “therapy” feel less visceral and eye-grabbing than Lagoon Boy’s form of self-flagellation - there’s an element of creepiness to Wally West putting on a Psycho-Pirate mask just before he relives his memories of his family, but it’s not quite foreboding enough in the follow-through to make Wally’s scenes register. (Especially when it is still unclear from the rest of the DC publishing lineup that Wally is actually dead.) Booster’s enemy, meanwhile, is himself - and while that makes sense based on Booster’s disastrously foolhardy arc in the pages of King’s Batman, this angle isn’t explored long enough to turn this into a particularly revolutionary take.

Yet the artwork remains unimpeachable, even with Clay Mann taking most of the issue off. While Mann continues to do terrific work with his confessional pages - honestly, Solstice in particular looks better than I have ever seen the character - but if you’ve got to lose your main artist for 18 pages, you could do a whole lot worse than having Lee Weeks tag in. Not only does Weeks’ style lend itself well with Mann’s, but his added use of shadow makes Sanctuary feel like a dangerous place even before the bodies start dropping. From small moments like Wally putting on the Psycho-Pirate mask to a splash page of Lagoon Boy being shot off his feet with a laser beam, Weeks brings a master’s sense of drama to his imagery that helps lend a lot of investment to even D-listers like Lagoon Boy.

Admittedly, there’s always the question of where to draw the line with a book like Heroes in Crisis - and even the most charitable reads would likely agree that King and company are pushing the envelope with how dark they can push the inherently optimistic heroes of the DC Universe, as opposed to a war epic like Omega Men or the existential breakdown at the heart of Mister Miracle. So the critics wouldn’t be wrong here - however, I’d argue even with some off-putting, even bleak moments, there’s a level of deliberateness and craftsmanship to both Tom King and Lee Weeks that makes me still feel invested, that still keeps me feeling curious, if not necessarily hopeful in the traditional sense of the word. That said, the shortness of pacing both immerses us in King’s mournful tone, but also makes us feel trapped in it - forcing us to replay the horrors of unexpected violence even in the places where we should feel safest. Even before the killings, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there is no Sanctuary - and that’s a feeling that makes Heroes in Crisis a more polarizing pill to swallow.

Credit: DC Entertainment

Books of Magic #2
Written by Kat Howard
Art by Tom Fowler and Jordan Boyd
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by Vertigo Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The Books of Magic stops being theoretical and starts getting practical in its punchy second issue. Picking up directly after last issue’s cliffhanger, in which a magical assassin takes aim just outside Tim Hunter’s window, writer Kat Howard stops just talking about magic and starts showing people actually throwing it around. Of course, magic has consequences and Howard starts to delve into that too, facing Tim down the barrel of magical murder by his newly attuned screwdriver “wand.” Propulsively rendered by Tom Fowler and Jordan Boyd, Books of Magic #2 avoids the sophomore slump with razzle-dazzle and more than a little Vertigo Comics angst.

If the first issue was all about establishment, Books of Magic #2’s main mission is following through with said established characters and world. And largely, it succeeds - Howard wastes little time diving into the morally gray world of magic, personified by our two leads. The issue’s opening neatly folds Tim’s ongoing training with the unseen, violent world that is literally outside his window. As he attempts to study the Book of Magic, the assassin springs into action - only to be whammied by the magickal wards Dr. Rose has placed upon the blissfully unaware Tim’s apartment building. It shows that Howard has a bit more action in mind this time round, and it is given a crackling kineticism by artist Tom Fowler and colorist Jordan Boyd.

But in addition, Books of Magic #2 also starts to make good use of that Vertigo Comics label with some gory exposition and spell-slinging, marking a notable change from this series’ low-key debut issue. Though Howard is still being cagey about exactly who is after Tim, she at least shows us what our leads are capable of and what they will be bringing to the ongoing plot. Howard’s Tim is all raw potential and eagerness as he rebukes Rose’s advice to take it slow - and for his hubris, he falls right into a trap of blade wielding monks. He then defends himself… and possibly kills dozens of them in the process. It isn’t quite as darkly fun as Rose’s literally reading the entrails of the assassin from the opening, in a vicious, but visually stunning bit of visual storytelling from Fowler and Boyd, but it is better than the scant introductions of the debut. Better still, Howard has established the theme (“Magic has consequences”) and then followed through on it for both the leads. For those turned off by the debut issue’s static pace, Books of Magic #2 really starts to pick up the pace.

And that pace owes a real debt of gratitude to Fowler and Boyd. From page one, Fowler’s pencils have a real forward drive. Fowler’s take on Tim embodies the jittery energy of an angsty teen, all headstrong and hormonal in his pursuit of magic. But at the same time, Fowler shows us Tim’s heart in a quiet, heavily shadowed and sickly lit scene between Tim and his father. Fowler doesn’t break out of the panel grid structure much during this issue, aside from a sequence of Tim studying the Book of Magic inset into the appearing text of the book. But that aside, the grids have enough propulsion or emotion or insane magic and gore in them to hold a reader’s attention. Boyd brings it all home with his consistently inky, but tonally sound colors. He sears neon blues into bolts of magic energy and deep coppers into the blood and entrails of Rose’s “fortune telling.” The pair still haven’t reached the giddy cosmic heights of the original series just yet, but these little touches and set pieces from them tell me that they will be ready once the scripts call for it.

The opening issue left me a bit cold, but I am warming up to the new era of Books of Magic after its second issue. We have a bit more of an idea of the kind of dangers lurking outside Tim’s door as well as his, and Dr. Rose’s, capabilities. Second issues are always critical, especially for rebooted series, but Kat Howard, Tom Fowler, and Jordan Boyd take the foundation of their debut and build upward on it nicely, putting Tim and the readers in the thick of this magical mystery that can only get weirder, and hopefully better, from here.

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