Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN #67, UNCANNY X-MEN #14, LIFE & DEATH OF TOYO HARADA #1

Uncanny X-Men #14
Credit: Salvador Larroca/Guru-eFX (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Lee Weeks/Elizabeth Breitweiser (DC)

Batman #67
Written by Tom King
Art by Lee Weeks, Jorge Fornes and Lovern Kindzierski
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

There’s an audaciousness to Tom King, Lee Weeks, and Jorge Fornes’ work in Batman #67 that isn’t just an acquired taste - it’s an issue that will likely polarize everyone who reads it. Deep cut after deep cut abounds in this largely silent issue, and those looking for a straightforward superhero caper are going to be deeply disappointed. But for sharp-eyed fans who are able to read deeper than just the dialogue will find a surprisingly intricate narrative underneath those spartan panels, one that you might see as either infuriatingly smart… or perhaps too clever by half.

There’s two conceits that King marries together in “All The Way Down” - the first being the perils of geography in Gotham City. Let’s face it - in comic books, settings are often seen as perfunctory compared to the characterization and the action. But King is incredibly deliberate about everything from the title on down, as we see Batman chasing an unknown enemy from the top of a high-rise all the way down to the streets, and even further down still as they battle down to the sewers, down the the depths of the putrid muck that is Gotham City. It’s fast-paced, made even quicker by the fact that King largely is only writing in onomatopoeia - down to the infuriating “beep beep” Batman’s quarry uses to taunt him every step of the way.

Which might be the kind of clue that would escape you - at least until your second read. Because this is where King makes his riskiest play yet - namely, delivering a stealth spiritual sequel to his work in Batman/Elmer Fudd. Once you learn a murder victim’s name, everything becomes clear, as Batman becomes the wiley coyote chasing after his monstrously swift prey - and enduring hit after hit after hit on the way down. While the final punchline might feel perhaps a little too clever, a little cute, it’s a nice bit of deliberateness that gives what could otherwise be seen as a mechanical chase comic some extra narrative heft.

That said, this is all window dressing compared to the artistic muscles that Lee Weeks and Jorge Fornes are flexing here. What can be said about Weeks that hasn’t been said already? The guy is a total beast, and his work on the first half of the issue is as immaculate as they come - the way he does his layouts and the way he lays out his action choreography (not to mention his pitch-perfect inks) may very well be worth the price of admission. While his inks are a bit scratchier than Weeks, Fornes is punching way out of his already considerable weight class trying to keep up with Weeks, and while readers might notice the minute shift in styles between the two artists, you’re going to have a tough time arguing against pages that look like the second coming of David Mazzucchelli, you know? Colorist Lovern Kindzierski deserves all due credit for being the connective thread between the two artists, but it’s letterer Clayton Cowles that should get a medal for all this work here, utilizing the sound effects in this issue with just as much flair and confidence as the rest of the art on display.

But like I said, this is an issue that some will see as clever, and others as a little too clever for its own good. There’s a certain degree of preciousness with the high concept of Batman #67 that might be a little hard for readers to swallow - this is the swiftest of swift reads, and you don’t have to tell me that comics aren’t cheap. But that might be the thing I respect most about Tom King as a writer, is his drive to keep injecting new literary techniques into his work, taking big swings on his execution regardless of whether it sticks the landing (or in this case, how many people might embrace his central conceit versus how many might be turned off out of principle). Between its polarizing high concept and its undeniably terrific art, to say Batman #67 is an acquired taste might be putting it mildly, but it’s the kind of narrative risk-taking that I wish more creators had the courage and skill to attempt.

Credit: Salvador Larroca (Marvel Comics)

Uncanny X-Men #14
Written by Matthew Rosenberg
Art by Salvador Larroca and Guru eFx
Lettered by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Cyclops has a lot to answer for, and while he also has the Mutant Liberation Front to contend with, the leader of the X-Men finds himself in a position to make some amends. Matthew Rosenberg is throwing a lot at readers in this story, showing the threats to mutantkind in a post-“Disassembled” world, and if Scott Summer wants to be a hero, he’s reminded that he has some responsibility to Children of the Atom everywhere. Salvador Larroca and Guru eFx round into shape a bit in this issue, complementing each other’s strengths a bit better as Larroca slightly augments his linework from what we’ve seen to this point.

Mutants being hated and feared is the obvious place to start when trying to recenter the X-Men line, but we don’t often get to see examinations of the power dynamics within the mutant community. And even less frequently do we get to examine the privilege of human-passing mutants versus the plight of the Morlocks or other non-human-passing mutants. Rosenberg tries to do some of that here, and while I don’t think it one hundred percent works, it at least adds that dynamic to the book. And as we see Cyclops try to make good for the persecuted Morlocks, we get to see a flicker of character growth. This isn’t the same Scott Summers that started his own own clandestine black ops team or led the Extinction Team to act on the same level as Avengers. This Cyclops is trying to right wrongs and take ownership of the ones that he’s directly responsible for.

Salvador Larroca turns in a stronger issue than his last frew here. Specifically, his page and panel layouts have a lot more propulsiveness to them. That may be in part due to the opening scenes rapidly cutting back and forth, forcing the artist into a lot of wide panels to fit all the information he needs to. But that’s a tried-and-true method for adding a little bit of energy a book that can become as expository as the X-Men can. Larocca’s also leaning into using some additional hatching to soften some of the contrast between the heavy black inks and Guru eFx’s colors. I think it goes a long way to making the book look a bit more natural and textured than we’ve seen recently. It’s a still a very busy book visually, but it is generally pretty easy to follow especially considering the number of characters and locations. I still think that too many of his characters look at times completely off-model (especially the character who arrives on the final page) but at this point, that doesn’t seem like something that will be fixed.

Uncanny X-Men is headed in an interesting direction. While it does seem to be biding its time a little bit, Rosenberg seems somewhat intent on rehabilitating Scott Summers’ image, or at least getting readers to understand him a little bit better. Larroca seems to have settled in a bit as well, turning in probably his best issue since the beginning of his run on the book. Even if you aren’t totally sold on this book, the confrontation in its closing pages is one that many X-fans have been waiting for, and like any good cliffhanger, it’s a powder keg of potential.

Credit: Mico Suayan (Valiant Entertainment)

The Life and Death of Toyo Harada #1
Written by Joshua Dysart
Art by Cafu, Mico Suayan and Andrew Dalhouse
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

A Valiant icon gets a sweeping science fiction/biopic hybrid in the debut of The Life and Death of Toya Harada. Written by Valiant mainstay Joshua Dystart and given a stoic but cinematic look by Cafu and Mico Suayan, this opening issue pulls the curtain back on one of the O.G.s of the Valiant Universe. Focusing on Harada’s tragic origin in all its harrowing detail and how it has directly influenced his new megalomaniacal, arguably pragmatic, present, The Life and Death of Toyo Harada #1 starts this biography off on a grand note.

If you’ve ever read a Valiant comic since 1989, chance are you’ve probably heard the name Toyo Harada, the all-powerful 'Omega Power' who has weaved a geopolitical web around the whole world and allied himself with other superpowered people in order to bring “balance” to the planet. He’s been a major antagonist for the Valiant Universe for as long as it’s been around, but this new series aims to tell the “real story” behind the man, and even for the casual reader I believe it succeeds.

Taking the familiar structure of a celebrity biopic and exploding it across the cosmos, writer Joshua Dysart starts from the opening page with an impressive scope. He starts by detailing the creation of the very universe in portentously entertaining narration, coupled with a gorgeous sequential panel grid of the birth of the universe from Mico Suayan and colorist Andrew Dalhouse. From there we jump to 1936, where we get to see Toyo’s upbringing in Hiroshima, Japan… and the aftermath of the atomic bomb. These scenes deftly provide the emotional core for the series, as the team takes the idea of a superpowered child “freedom fighter” deadly serious, showing how Harada started to consolidate his power, both as the “Omega” and as a political figure.

But The Life and Death of Toyo Harada isn’t just about the man’s past, it is also about his future. While the look into his past provides the steak, the sequences following Harada’s latest push toward peace are all sizzle thanks to Dysart, Cafu, and Andrew Dalhouse. As the narration clocks on, we are deposited into “some seventy years later,” where Toyo and his multi-tiered team of “psiots” are attempting to rig a sort of space hook across a ring of alien asteroids orbiting the Earth. It is a lot, but Dysart’s script really kicks up the action and humor here, detailing a thrilling chase through orbit and plenty of “holding the line” action down on the surface starring some gleefully weird characters like a group of Power Pack-esque children with specific mental abilities and a bloodthirsty and hilarious creature only known as LV-99.

This whole section of the issue raises the stakes of the story nicely, and adds an urgency to the biopic material of the first half as we know vaguely where the story is headed. Starting with a dense, but narratively rich montage of the “seventy years or so” that readers may have missed, Cafu goes full John Cassaday, showcasing Toyo and his team fighting Chinese Special Forces ground troops and fighter jets in the most action-packed and bombastic way possible. Though Cafu’s pencils are less expressive than Suayan in the opening, they have a real power to them as this section is just all action, flight, and fight.

Don’t let the portentous title fool, you because The Life and Death of Toyo Harada #1 really is a fun read. Blessed with the strong emotional core of a biopic as well as some burly action, this opening issue swings big and starts the series with nice, solid hit. Neaty accessible, but not at the expense of its scope, heart or action, The Life and Death of Toyo Harada might just end up being a volume worth your shelf.

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