Best Shots Reviews: WAR OF THE REALMS #1, HARLEY QUINN #60, IMMORTAL HULK #16

Immortal Hulk #16
Credit: Joe Bennett (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Arthur Adams (Marvel Comics)

The War of the Realms #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It’s a war that’s been years in the making. Since Jason Aaron took over writing Thor, his primary focus has been on the worthiness of gods and heroes in general and Thor in particular, but it’s always been clear that this war was going to be the true test of the Odinson’s mettle. And while the war has already been fought and we’ve seen Malekith’s forces victorious throughout other mythological realms, now the war comes to our Earth, where the enemy hasn’t ever seen warriors like the Avengers or Spider-Man before. The War of the Realms #1 is not the beginning of this story, but it looks like it is the beginning of its end as Aaron, Russell Dauterman, and Matthew Wilson join forces to create the spectacle of a universal war that may just finally prove the worthiness of Asgard’s mightiest warrior and his greatest allies.

Aaron and Dauterman waste no time getting to the action in this story, delivering a killing blow in the first couple of pages. As this is a continuation of what has been happening in Thor for a while now, the creative team doesn’t need to spin their wheels, to slowly build up or explain what has been happening so far. Expanding what has previously been a Thor story into a Marvel Universe story, they quickly catch the new soldiers in the war like Captain America and Spider-Man up on the action while also giving the readers a primer on the battles fought so far. But given that this is a continuation of a story that many of us have been following for a while now, Aaron and Dauterman have the freedom to jump right into the story, making this feel like the next issue in an ongoing serial more than the beginning of something new.

It is exciting to see this Thor-centered story explode on to the streets of New York. Even as they are making it a Marvel story, it’s still built off of the question that has defined Aaron’s Thor run— what is “worthiness”? Since the writer’s earliest stories with artist Esad Ribic, that’s what Aaron has questioned through Thor, even restating it towards the end of Jane Foster’s tenure as the hero. In The Mighty Thor #703, her dying mother once told Jane, “Find a god to believe in, Jane. Fine one who’s worthy of you…” That’s the theme that The War of the Realms has to wrestle with, even as it has to show a big, beautiful and brutal battle. “Whoever holds this hammer, if he/she be worthy…” read the inscription on Mjolnir, and that’s what’s sent Aaron on his own personal quest with this mythology. His Thor run has consistently asked what does it mean to be worthy, and this may be finally the story to provide that answer.

Thor obviously is still looking for answers to his own worthiness or lack thereof. The many enchanted hammers he bears, none of which are Mjolnir, speaks to his own personal struggles. Jane Foster shows up briefly in this issue and with her cancer cured, you have to wonder what role she will play in this war’s outcome. But if you are questioning worthiness, particularly on a godly level, Aaron and Dauterman call out three characters in particular: Daredevil, Wolverine, and the Punisher. These three seem out of place in a story of gods, trolls, and elves. More than what fighting they’ll get into over the story, it’s a mystery still on what they’ll find out about themselves in this war. What makes them, three of Marvel’s darker “heroes,” worthy of this story? And let’s not even start to speculate on the worthiness of Loki and Odin, two characters who have done as much or more harm than good in this war.

Returning to the story that they created so much of the art for in The Mighty Thor, Dauterman and Wilson have defined the visual identity of this mythological war. Dauterman’s layouts, with all of his non-traditional grids and panels, focus on the mayhem on these battles. His slanted panels and non-square panels force the story into an imbalance that mimics the unsteadiness of the narrative. His and Wilson’s art is often chaotic, bordering on being almost unreadable, but always maintains the propulsion of Aaron’s writing. This constant forward momentum of the visuals fuels a story that is filled with a few moments of quiet and even sacrifice as the war’s sacrifices begin adding up early.

The unrelenting pulse of the art creates quite a bit of narrative thunder in this book. For as much as Aaron, Dauterman, and Wilson have worked together to set up this war, this issue calls to arms the heroes and villains to create new myths and legends. As a first issue, this comic book is full of sound and fury that signify a bit more than nothing. They signify the beginning of a lot more sound and fury in this war of heroes and myths. The first battle for Earth has started and now it’s time to see who steps up as the realm’s defenders.

Credit: Guillem March (DC)

Harley Quinn #60
Written by Sam Humphries
Art by Sami Basri and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

If you’re looking for some solid, no-frills action, you could do a whole lot worse than Harley Quinn #60. While it would be hard to argue that writer Sam Humphries finds any new depth in the Clown Princess of Crime, he does deliver an accessible and fast-paced story that brings energy and perspective to Harley’s life. But thanks to artist Sami Basri and colorist Alex Sinclair, this unassuming diversion is given new life and energy thanks to their expressive and engaging artwork. This book might not reinvent the wheel, but it is definitely a solid piece of ephemeral entertainment.

After breaking into S.T.A.R. Labs to find cancer-fighting treatment for her mother, Harley Quinn finds herself single-handedly tackling an interstellar invasion - for a lot of people, the question might be, what else do you want? First, I have to give Humphries credit for tightening up the pacing and the one-liners for this series, which had oftentimes felt formless and meandering with its raunchiness and innuendo - by dropping Harley in the middle of an action sequence, we’re given some much-needed focus and stakes, and even some opportunity for Harley to grow in the face of some pretty overwhelming odds.

And it’s these moments that Basri and Sinclair particularly shine. Harley may look a little younger than what you may consider on-model, but she’s consistently expressive as she’s blasting shadowy monsters with her pink-and-blue ray guns. The action here looks fast-paced and exciting, and is for sure what will justify the price of admission for a book like this - that said, you can’t help but notice some corners being cut, like the sparse backgrounds or the silhouette-based aliens. Sinclair, however, lends a lot of texture and energy to these pages, which can’t help but draw readers in. That said, letterer Dave Sharpe’s style of breaking out emphasized words winds up feeling a bit distracting, particularly as the series gets even talkier - after awhile, the effect gets overused, with phrases like “lethal,” “murdered,” and “I love my life” winding up overwhelming any of the dialogue surrounding it.

That said, while Humphries doesn’t lay down a lot of drag on this issue, it’s also a bit easy to see the narrative seams. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, taking such an established character and being so on the nose with hallucinations of supporting cast members like the Joker, Batman, or Harley’s mother - on the one hand, it’s a great way to get new readers on board, but for anyone with passing familiarity with the character, it feels overly convenient, perhaps even unearned. And while Humphries does bring more polish to this issue than some of his predecessors, I’d be hard-pressed to argue that we’re getting anything new in terms of personality or point of view from Harley - we’re seeing more of the same, but unfortunately, that same has been fairly one-dimensional for quite some time.

For many readers, Harley Quinn has been an acquired taste as a book - and as a reader who was less enamored with previous volumes, it’s nice to see Humphries bringing a tighter rein on his plotting and pacing for a character that has been known to meander. And partnered up with an art team as solid as Basri and Sinclair, there’s a lot to like just by taking in the imagery at play. That all said, there’s still plenty of room for improvement for this book - giving Harley a deeper personality might lend a little bit more weight behind all those zero-calorie one-liners.

Credit: Alex Ross (Marvel Comics)

Immortal Hulk #16
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose and Paul Mounts
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The world of the Immortal Hulk continues to expand with engaging and terrifying results in #16. Using the steady frame of haunting narration from Rick Jones’ “autobiography,” writer Al Ewing dives deeper into the horror of the Hulk centered around a hunt for his former sidekick’s body. As Ewing does the work plotwise, he continues steadily building out the cast of gamma-cursed characters, fleshing out their ongoing arcs in engaging ways.

When we last left our “Devil Hulk,” he had just had a tragic reconnection with Betty Ross and had picked up the trail of Rick Jones’ stolen body alongside his personal therapist Doc Samson. Leading them back on the trail of Shadow Base and their cruel gamma experiments, Ewing smartly picks up pretty quickly with the Hulk and Samson’s chase, turning the hook of Hulk and Banner’s “magical thinking” toward a much longer narrative track. I will admit that the last two longer serialized stories lost some of the macabre punchiness of the standalone centered opening arc, but Ewing’s use of the Hulk’s mythos and his overall tone and vibe of the comic still has a lot going for it.

Still very much centered around dark introspective storytelling, Ewing continues to dive into the psychology of Banner and the Hulk, positing Ol’ Jade Jaws as part of a rotating roster of dissociative alter egos. The return of a long dormant alter ego in the issue’s cliffhanger is more textual example of this take, but Ewing is lampshading the whole thing from the start, using the “text” of Rick Jones’ autobiography. Better still, our audience surrogate Jackie McGee is the one pulling this thread, scaffolding the more larger scale A-story of Hulk and Banner’s new normal with a genuinely engaging mystery.

Not only does Immortal Hulk #16 bring it with its plot and scripting, but artists Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, and Paul Mounts continue to lean into the more horror-centric take on the Hulk. Opening with a single page splash detailing Rick Jones’ first meeting with the Hulk that feel ripped right out of Bernie Wrightson’s nightmares, Bennett and company downshift slightly as the issue focuses on Jackie. But still the horror is there even in the mundane, with a haunting flashback to the “Hulk in Hell” arc. Jackie tells her editor that when you live in the Hulk’s world, you see things you can’t unsee. As she says this line, she stares directly at the reader as her newsroom melts away to show the hollowed eyes of Jackie’s father behind the Green Door.

Bennett also delivers grander scale, monster-based horror visuals this round. Once the sun goes down on Samson and Banner’s search for Rick Jones, we more of that now trademark body horror the art team has become known for on this title. This issue’s Hulk transformation is particularly horrible once you notice the little details of it - not only is Banner’s body once again twisting and warping in the skin crawling shapes and colors, but you can see the look in Banner’s eyes, almost enveloped in ropy skin flaps, as the Hulk’s head bursts forth from his body. He is aware of all of this, and it is a truly haunting page. When you include some burly action toward the issue’s back half as the Hulk and Samson take on some gamma creatures left over in the old Shadow Base location, Immortal Hulk #16 really caters to both Hulk and horror fans alike.

Immortal Hulk has been a series to watch since its debut, and while it doesn’t possess its earlier Tales from the Crypt anthology flavor, I think #16 portends bigger and better things for the title. Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, and Paul Mounts seem to have a very clear vision for their era of Hulk and, if the multiple printings are any indication, people are clearly responding to it. #16 is just another great example of how grimly entertaining this series continues to be.

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