Best Shots Reviews: GODDESS MODE #1, MILES MORALES: SPIDER-MAN #1, More

Marvel Comics December 2018 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: DC Comics/Vertigo

Goddess Mode #1
Written by Zoe Quinn
Art by Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Vertigo Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

”I really wish you wouldn’t do your Beep-Boop Bulls--t in our apartment…”

Magical girls, metadata, and world-building get filtered through an eye-searing techno-thriller lens in the debut of Vertigo Comics’ Goddess Mode. Written by noted game developer and author Zoe Quinn and penciled and colored by the reunited Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi, this debut is a funny, expansive, and instantly engaging science fiction yarn about a world under siege by a tech corporation and a mysterious illness that has decimated the population. While I get that “evil corporations” and “viruses” aren’t exactly the first thing you would think when you hear the word “funny,” Quinn’s script and her leading ladies are almost aggressively charming, quipping and fighting through her well-built world, rendered in Rodriguez and Renzi’s blazingly cool artwork. Positively teeming with ideas and breathtaking artwork, Goddess Mode #1 is one of this week’s standout releases.

Meet Cassandra Price. She’s an absolute mess. Buried in debt and left without a father thanks to something called the Tucker Brady Syndrome, she is forced to work meaninal coding jobs and artificial intelligence maintenance for the company Hermeticorp, controllers of the series’ VR Internet 2.0 called Azoth. But Cassandra quickly finds that something is rotten in the state of Azoth as digital daemons and arcane like symbols beneath the coding have wrought havoc on the system, giving rise to a gorgeously designed group of digital magical girls who are working to “fix the world.”

From the jump, Zoe Quinn is throwing a ton of information at the reader as most of what I just detailed above is introduced within the first page. But fortunately for readers, Quinn is quite good at making all this info never feel like bald-faced exposition. A lot this talent is centered around her leading lady Cassandra, who doles out the world-building in droll, truly funny narration. This not only brings readers deeper into the world with relative ease, but allows Cassandra a lot of time in the spotlight, highlighting her charm and Quinn’s wit. A first-timer in comic books but a well-seasoned prose author, Quinn really excels both with her character work and establishment of the world of Goddess Mode, never sticking on one idea too long and moving the action of this first issue along at a brisk pace, aided by the naturally propulsive art of Rodriguez and Renzi.

But better still, for the world this debut issue presents, the science fiction Quinn seeds here feels substantial and well-researched. A lot of some of the later reveals like the corporate-branded nanobots injected into bodies to keep them alive, connected and working, as well as the clear class divides between Cassandra and her higher-ups read very pointedly. While Quinn’s games has proven she has a steady hand at farce and pathos, this debut also shows a real aptitude for socially conscious sci-fi, topped with a snarkily relatable lead character. It is all very Transmetropolitan and if this first issue is any indication, it can only get weirder and even more idea-heavy in future issues.

But as great as Zoe Quinn’s script is, this debut provides a tremendous reunion of Spider-Gwen collaborators Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi. Jazzing up the opening narration from Cassandra is a cold open sequence of one of the aforementioned “magical girls” in the digital world, taking down a digital monster seemingly made entirely of tongues. On the very first page, readers are reminded of Rodriguez’s stellar handle of action as the witch bounds and slices through the layout, kissed by Renzi’s day-glo lighting and fill-in colors.

From there they downshift a bit, both artists’ styles somewhat muting as we see the real world outside of Azoth. Rodriguez’s pencils are much neater, almost smoothed off as we see the grime and emptiness of Cassandra’s life. Rico Renzi matches the shift in kind, coloring the non-digital assets of the scenes with flatted, more earthy tones. The pair obviously provide a more substantial displays of their talents, Cassandra’s discovery of digital “magic” which should be gracing desktop backgrounds by Thursday. But is this opening shift that shows just how well the pair can work together to sell a world and look of a book.

Sassy, smart, and more than a little pissed-off, Goddess Mode #1 is another thunderous debut for the new era of Vertigo Comics. Zoe Quinn, Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi build up a rich, expansive world, chock it full of ideas, and throw a trash-loving mess of a woman into the thick of it - and the result is a beautiful blast to read from start to finish. There are a lot of great comics hitting shelves this week, but I’ll be damned if Goddess Mode #1 isn’t the best of the bunch.

Credit: Brian Stelfreeze (Marvel Comics)

Miles Morales: Spider-Man #1
Written by Saladin Ahmed
Art by Javier Garron and David Curiel
Lettering by Corey Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Just in time for this Friday’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse cinematic wide release, Saladin Ahmed brings a fresh voice to fan-favorite Miles Morales in today’s Miles Morales: Spider-Man #1, and it’s the perfect way for folks to dive into the comic books if Spider-Verse is their first introduction to the character. Miles’ previous solo title wrapped up earlier this year when writer Brian Michael Bendis departed for DC, and Ahmed does an excellent job capturing what made Miles so captivating in Bendis’ works while creating a brand new storyline newcomers can dive right into. It’s tough to make any  character’s background welcoming to new readers, even characters as recent as Miles, but Ahmed skillfully delivers just enough exposition to get readers comfortable with Miles’ Earth-616 background without the script getting too bogged down in backstory.

There’s a lot to catch up on in Miles Morales’ life, and through the framing device of a creative writing class journal assignment, Ahmed and Miles get us up to speed. As Spider-Man (one who is Peter Parker-approved, no less), Miles patrols the streets of New York City, fighting crime and worrying his parents with his adventures. As regular teenager, Miles is scrambling to get enough sleep to maintain the double life of storied hero and high school student. In a one-sided confrontation with Rhino during what appears to be a straightforward robbery, he’s forced to face up to the fact that his work-life balance is a little off.

The robbery escalates into something infinitely more sinister involving brainwashed children, leaving Spider-Man and Rhino to get to the bottom of not just the heist, but the disappearances and setting up the larger mystery of this introductory arc. Ahmed touches on serious themes in a way that feels natural to the story without the maudlin, after school special vibe some comics lean into, intentionally or not - while Miles and the situation in the series are fictional, the issues are very real and have a massive impact on people’s lives, and Ahmed touches on the current political landscape in a measured way that doesn’t underplay what’s going on in the real world.

Ahmed’s Miles is goofy and relatable in the way you always want a Spider-Man to be, and artist Javier Garron and colorist David Curiel deliver dynamic art and colors that captures the full range of Miles’ acrobatic skill. Garron has a great eye for body language and small details in faces, and Curiel’s colors and the inks keep the characters warm and lively without muddying up any of Garron’s linework. Garron plays with perspective during the heist scene in a clever way to amp up the surprise of Ahmed’s climactic reveal. The colors in this sequence are particularly impressive as well - the effects of the gradated reds and yellows of the sunset combined with a bright silhouette that follows Miles’ movements is lively and fun and makes the scene pop.

In a time when Marvel’s ability to capitalize on its cinematic success with its comic books is questionable at best, it’s hard to understate what an impressively timed and well-executed debut issue this is for new readers. Though the book’s hitting shelves a little early, anyone curious about Miles after walking out of Into the Spider-Verse will be able to pick up Miles Morales: Spider-Man #1 and feel right at home in just one issue without the stress of navigating decades of old storylines to try to catch up.

Credit: DC Comics

The Batman Who Laughs #1
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Jock and David Baron
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

The reverberations of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Dark Nights: Metal continues to be felt in the DCU with the release of The Batman Who Laughs #1. One of the most popular characters to spin out of Dark Nights: Metal, the Batman Who Laughs is a personification of the saying “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself the villain,” and stopping him provides an interesting challenge for Bruce Wayne - how do you defeat an apex predator when they are an exact match for you? Snyder’s Detective Comics collaborator Jock returns for this limited series, imbuing this book with a sort of late-era Frank Miller-esque impressionism.

Snyder makes a great effort in this debut issue to catch readers up with the Batman Who Laughs concept, and I think he succeeds - after all, it’s clear to see that the Batman Who Laughs is a deranged combination of the Joker and Batman. But in crafting a compelling salvo and then attempting to sell the mystery, Snyder doesn’t seem to be on the same page as Jock. Long captions explain the inner workings of the opening heist, because they aren’t particularly visual. Given Snyder’s reputation for seeding out his mysteries, it seems that some of these details will undoubtedly be crucial to the conclusion of the arc, but the pacing almost places too much emphasis on them and might betray some of that eventual reveal.

As the plot moves forward, the rhythm improves, but it’s not long before another deluge of captioning explains a plot point that is mentioned a page earlier by Commissioner Gordon. It’s not something I want to call out as bad writing - it’s not, Scott Snyder has proven more than a few times that he’s more capable than most when it comes to writing comics. But the art doesn’t do him any favors in terms of not having to put some of that information on the page the way it is. In essence Snyder, editors Katie Kubert and Davie Wielgosz and letterer Sal Cipriano have to find a way to make Jock’s art work when it doesn’t. A prime example is that previously mentioned deluge of captioning - Batman describes the details he’s discovered about the decoys that take the place of Joker in Arkham and mentions their names. The panel shows multiple ID cards but Jock’s art doesn’t leave room for us to see those names. so what could have been a “show” moment turns into a “tell” moment. It makes it feel like the creative team is holding our hand when really they’re making up for a poor storytelling decision by Jock.

It makes sense why Jock’s art doesn’t work for all readers, or really even all stories. His art trades in a lot of mood and tone that has little concern for details if they aren’t absolutely peterinent. Jock uses a lot of creative inking where he just blocks out forms that you clearly understand and that’s fine. Plenty of artists disregard light sources for the sake of dynamism or effect - Batman is a character that’s easy to lean into that with because you generally want him shrouded in darkness.

But the result is a storytelling approach that deemphasizes setting which forces the colorist to work more - and this isn’t David Baron’s best outing. Baron’s best pages are a couple of red and blue pages that feature Bruce and Gordon on a rooftop. Even though it’s a short conversation, the contrast is stark. There is some slight texture and gradient in the blues that plays so well against the flat red and deep blacks in the rest of the panels. But Baron isn’t nearly that consistent for the entire book - he acquits himself fairly well fairly well at first, but then things start to blend into a muddy mess of colors. At one point, the sky in one panel shares the same color with the road in another (and shares the same color with a house on another), only emphasizing the weaknesses in the line art. Later in the book, Baron washes the background in an awful yellowy-brown before half-heartedly returning to the blue and red palette in the finale that worked so well in one scene but sorely misses the mark when it could be even more impactful.

This isn’t really what you want from a debut issue. I think that Snyder’s script probably needed a little bit more than it got from Jock’s art, and subsequently they had to adjust to make things work. Baron shows a couple of flashes of real inspiration here but overall, he’s not able to elevate the line art or give the story the punchup that it really needed to be memorable. If you were a huge fan of Dark Nights: Metal and are really intrigued by the Batman Who Laughs, there’s no question that this is a book for you. But solely from an execution standpoint, there’s a real lack of synergy here.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Doctor Strange: The Best Defense #1
Written by Gerry Duggan
Art by Greg Smallwood
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

“Being the Sorcerer Supreme is the hardest job in the world.”

Of course, when you’re the last man standing years after a post-apocalyptic event, it’s also the only job in the world — but somehow Gerry Duggan and Greg Smallwood make Doctor Strange: The Best Defense #1 look easy, with epic scale to this sparse landscape that makes this issue one of the best Defenders one-shots of the bunch. Striking the perfect balance between weighty stakes and magic spectacle, Duggan and Smallwood not only lend some light towards the overall structure of this Defenders series, but make a compelling case that they should be next in line for taking over the good doctor’s solo series.

Since Doctor Strange’s resurgence under Jason Aaron, an ongoing theme has been that magic has a cost - which makes it all the more ironic seeing Stephen Strange as the sole survivor of a cataclysmic event that has scoured the Earth and left the dread Dormammu scavenging the remains. While the post-apocalyptic milieu has been mined extensively by Marvel over the past few years with Old Man Logan and Old Man Hawkeye, Duggan focuses less on the world-building and more on establishing an atmosphere of dread and danger - never has Stephen Strange seemed in more dire straits, as he has to literally snap his fingers into place to summon an incantation, or has to rely on the barest threads of his once-resplendent Cloak of Levitation. It’s a nice way of establishing both tension and characterization - given that Strange is generally defined by his sense of arrogance, the stakes feel even more important to see him brought down so low.

But Duggan also does some strong work with the plotting here, as well - he nimbly weaves together threads from much of the other Defenders one-shots, but whereas the previous issues were all about set-up, we get the added satisfaction of execution here, as Strange commits to one final gambit in order to prevent the destruction of all we know. Without giving too much away, there’s enough nods to the other members of the Defenders anti-team that this feels like a group effort. In certain ways, this issue makes the whole Best Defense series feel a little similar to Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers efforts of a decade ago - even if all the characters aren’t seen on the page together, their presence is undeniably felt, and their actions ripple out to cause unseen consequences to the others.

Much of what makes the sparsity of this issue work so well is the mood set by artist Greg Smallwood. Every page in this book looks terrific - after seeing just how spellbinding the artwork was, I couldn’t help but get the vibe from the prestige Doctor Strange graphic novels like What Is It That Troubles You, Stephen? and Triumph and Torment. Every step that Stephen takes looks painful, but Smallwood mercifully keeps the gore levels down, making moments like Stephen plucking out an eyeball or breaking his own fingers feel tense but tolerable. Even the setting of this book - which is sparse, given that it is a washed-out post-apocalypse - winds up feeling menacing and foreboding in Smallwood’s hands. And what’s even more impressive is that Smallwood is a one-man-band, with his colors feeling pitch-perfect, whether it’s small bursts of blood red when Stephen is attacked, or a florescent green blast heralding the smoldering legacy of the Incredible Hulk.

With the other Defenders one-shots, you might expect a more artistic bent, with names like Al Ewing and Jason Latour - but given his role with big-name events like Infinity Wars, you might be forgiven if you wouldn’t expect Duggan to bring that level of deliberation and care to what might be considered a smaller-scale project. You’d also be dead wrong. Duggan and Smallwood are a dream team together, and make every page of Doctor Strange: The Best Defense a tense and thrilling adventure.

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