Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN WHO LAUGHS #4, WAR OF THE REALMS: JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #1, More

War of the Realms: Journey Into Mystery #1
Credit: Joe Quinones (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Jock (DC)

The Batman Who Laughs #4
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Jock and David Baron
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

While much has been said about The Batman Who Laughs being a spiritual sequel to Scott Snyder and Jock’s work on Detective Comics, one could argue that this fourth installment owes just as much to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke in terms of exploring the dichotomy between Batman and the Joker, and their reactions to their unholiest of mashups. And like the split of good and bad, that same split exists along the execution of this story — while Jock’s artwork feels jagged and muddled, it comes alongside some of the best character moments in Snyder’s storied history with the Dark Knight.

It’s a testament to Snyder’s writing that for a series that has felt desperate from the jump, he’s finding new ways to put Batman on the ropes. His mind succumbing to Joker toxins, Bruce has decided to try to beat the Batman Who Laughs at his own game — but Snyder’s smartest move is how he explores that gambit’s harrowing cost. Watching Alfred stand up to his ward to fight for his very soul is a gut-wrenching sequence, as Snyder knows how to hurt both characters in the most punishing fashions possible — and perhaps even more shockingly, this winds up being just the warm-up.

The true highlight of the book — if not the series as a whole — winds up being Batman’s reunion with the Joker himself, as Snyder brings an uneasy understanding to these two battered titans. Given that the watchword of this series has been “desperation,” it’s touching to see Batman actually trust the Joker with what might be the most important contingency plan of his life — and then to share the bleakest of laughs with his mortal enemy. It’s a moment that evokes Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, but more importantly, Snyder actually earns it.

That said, there are a few other choice Snyder moments that wind up being hampered by the book’s visuals. Jock’s artwork looks sketchier than ever, and while he does a great job at evoking the horrific mood of The Batman Who Laughs, it comes at the cost of this story’s emotional beats and panel-to-panel storytelling. Watching Batman driving a disguised Batmobile as a cab, for example, already stretches the limits of disbelief a bit, then when the Batmobile reverts to its armored state, that transformation is lost in a flash of purple energy, forcing readers to do a double-take. Similarly, a crescendo moment at the end of the book featuring the Batman Who Laughs winds up losing its heft because Jock’s design is unrecognizable.

Which is a shame, because not only is Jock clearly talented with the Batman Who Laughs as a character, we’ve seen him do incredible work with Batman and the Joker in other work. And even despite these gripes, there are some pages in this issue that really do look incredible — the opening page of Robin twisting in the air over the Gotham cityscape, for example, is breathtaking, and the pages that colorist David Baron washes in haunting red lights wind up having much more impact than the pages with more standard palettes. There are some moments here that really do work, but there are others that you can’t help but wonder might have been more impactful if the art was more in sync with the script.

Of course, given The Batman Who Laughs’ massive sales onslaught, it’s likely that any concerns on the visual side are going to fall by the wayside, and perhaps deservedly so, given how ambitious Snyder is with this story. And it’s a testament to his relationship with Jock that this is a story he insists on collaborating on together — because ultimately, The Batman Who Laughs is a story about relationships, between Batman, the Joker, their vicious offspring, the city in which they live, and the friends and family that circle their orbit. Like the book’s title character, we might not be seeing that world the way we might hope, but the characterization these creators illuminate makes this series one to watch.

Credit: Valerio Schiti (Marvel Comics)

War of the Realms: Journey Into Mystery #1
Written by Clint, Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy
Art by André Lima Araújo and Chris O’Halloran
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Get riddled with these exciting mysteries! The McElroy podcast empire lands with a splash at Marvel Comics this week with a number of high-profile returns in War of the Reams: Journey Into Mystery #1. An ensemble tale of cool babies, big monsters, and everybody’s favorite dog of gods (or god of dogs, depending on who you’re asking), Journey Into Mystery #1 is a clever throwback to the series that introduced the God of Thunder into the Marvel universe to begin with. This time we’re instead introduced to Thor’s brand new baby sister, just in time for her to be thrown into the center of an interdimensional war for the ages.

The McElroy family are no strangers to comics, given the graphic novel adaptation of their hit podcast The Adventure Zone, and here they take to the current Marvel continuity with aplomb, plucking beloved characters from both current and under-appreciated older titles (hello, Death Locket) for a ragtag band of impromptu babysitters who work together surprisingly well. The script is tight and well-paced, introducing a large cast and setting the stage for their adventures against the backdrop of the War of the Realms in a series of vignettes that never feel rushed or shallow.

The charm of The Adventure Zone lies in three hapless adventurers coming together to become heroes for the ages, a not uncommon archetype elevated by the McElroy family’s clear enjoyment of their time together and a particular profound empathy and heart guided by dungeonmaster and youngest brother Griffin. What makes their podcast empire so successful is on full display here with a careful execution of their trademark humor imbued with unexpectedly profound and touching beats that go a long way towards establishing a genuine bond between a very unusual team-up in a short amount of pages. This is a very McElroy experience in all the best ways, and a fantastic showcase of what they could continue to bring to Marvel team-up titles in the future.

Artist André Lima Araújo does a stellar job on the art, hitting precisely the Three Men and a Baby meets the Jason Statham sequence from Fate of the Furious vibe the McElroys’ script calls for. Araújo and colorist Chris O’Halloran serve up explosive and vibrant over-the-top action sequences with wonderfully expressive faces, punctuating wild car chases with little moments like Death Locket beaming down at a gurgling, cheery baby or Thori smirking as best a dog can at the destruction left in his wake. The colors are a little inconsistent at times — the brighter the better, here, with the darker pages sometimes coming across a bit muddy and flat — but Halloran has a great eye for using color to drive home individual beats. Clayton Cowles’ lettering is exemplary as always, particularly a sequence with Miles coming to the rescue of a pair of hapless impersonators in Times Square.

War of the Realms: Journey Into Mystery #1 is about all you can ask of a big event spin-off — fun to read and easy to pick up on its own, even if you’re not necessarily keeping up with the main series. It’s an action-packed read with a surprisingly emotional core; if you were confused about how these characters would play together, this week’s debut of Journey Into Mystery will easily assuage your fears. If you’re a fan of the McElroys, you’ll love what they bring to the table here, and if even if you’re not, you’ll still have a blast.

Credit: Brad Walker (Marvel Comics)

Detective Comics #1001
Written by Peter J. Tomasi
Art by Brad Walker, Andrew Hennessy and Nathan Fairbairn
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It’s a new era for Detective Comics with Peter J. Tomasi and Brad Walker on board and they’ve got a job for the titular World’s Greatest: bats are dying all over Gotham, and it’s up to Batman to find out why. This puts Bruce Wayne on a crash course with a new baddie, the Arkham Knight and... unfortunately, that’s about it. Tomasi’s introductory issue is a little slight, but it’s pulled through by some really inspired artwork from Walker.

When I say that the issue feels slight, I mean solely in a plot sense — it feels like it lingers a little too long in certain moments and ends up burning the page count more on witty repartee between Bruce and Alfred and obscuring the Arkham Knight than actually getting going. But I understand the approach. Tomasi has to set his Batman apart from Tom King’s, Scott Snyder’s and even the previous Detective runs from Bryan Hill and James Tynion IV. He’s being deliberate with his character work in order to set the tone for this title, and it’s hard to be upset with that because he gives such great character work. But for seasoned Batman readers, it’s going to feel like Tomasi is holding your hand a bit too much. Drawing the line from dead bats to Batman visiting Francine Langstrom isn’t all that hard, so Tomasi spends probably a little too long setting the scene, and that hurts the overall flow a bit.

However, artist Brad Walker is flexing every muscle in that drawing hand in this issue, and I feel like it’s been far too long since we’ve seen him operating on this level. His expression work, especially in the opening pages, does a lot to underline Tomasi’s dialogue and make the character work feel really effective. And his paneling gives the book a lot of energy. I really like the way Andrew Hennessy inks him as well. He’s not afraid to go heavy with his inks in order to help exaggerate the expression work, particularly with Batman’s lensed eyes when he wears the cape and cowl. He is adept at keeping an even balance of black on the page in order for Nathan Fairbairn’s colors to really come through. Some of the plotting revolves around the difference between light and dark, night and day so it’s crucial for the reader’s understanding of what’s happening for them to strike a perfect balance there.

This is a speedy read, in part because the art team is doing their jobs so well. It should always be this easy to read a comic. But it does highlight just how little Tomasi moves the plot. So while his character interactions are really fun, Tomasi fails to drive home the weight or the stakes of the story he’s telling because he runs out of pages to do so. “Medieval” is off to an interesting start, albeit a slow one.

Credit: Claudia Balboni/Marissa Louise (Image Comics)

Fairlady #1
Written by Brian Schirmer
Art by Claudia Balboni and Marissa Louise
Lettering by David Bowman
Published by Image Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Fairlady is 2000 Plus meets Johnny Dollar, a thrilling tale of private eyes in a war-torn land where hardboiled detectives investigate the usual petty crimes in the shadow of fantastical machinery left in the wake of an unfathomable conflict. Jenner Faulds is a Fairlady, the only woman licensed to be a private investigator in the aftermath of the War of the Harshland. Together with her partner Oanu, a very large anthropomorphic cat, Jenner finds herself hired for what should be a fairly straightforward task: find an embezzling employee. Instead, Jenner lands smack in the middle of a much larger mystery, and finds herself revisiting memories of the War she’d thought she’d left behind.

Writer Brian Schirmer delivers a tight, engaging script, delivering exactly what he promises on the cover: a complete Fairlady mystery from start to finish, no cliffhangers, but with enough worldbuilding throughout the issue that you find yourself with a bigger picture view of the world and a nagging sense that there’s something much larger afoot as Jenner and Oanu investigate. Fairlady #1 has the vibe of old radio dramas: a single story, well-told generally in one installment for easy consumption, but with the aspirations of something closer to Magnum P.I. if it was set in Shannara — an overarching story that you can follow or not as you pick up the stand-alone issues. The dialogue is light and snappy and Schirmer unfolds the mystery skillfully.

Artist Claudia Balboni delivers some innovative and thoughtful layouts elevated by David Bowman’s lettering work — a page with a rising elevator is particularly impressive, with Balboni and Bowman working together to keep your eyes trained in just the right place as you follow the slow progress of the lift through the panels and up the page. Balboni has an incredible touch for subtle details: a tilt of the head, zooming in just enough on repeated panels for emphasis, and my personal favorite, a shadowy and almost comedic fight in the background of a sequence of panels where Jenner is checking rooms for their target. Balboni and colorist Marissa Louise give the world of Fairlady #1 a distinctive fantasy vibe — rich colors muted by the dim candle glow of a post-tech world.

There are some elements that feel a little out of place in the debut — Schirmer makes a point of stating early that Jenner is the only Fairlady, but it doesn’t really come up, while her cat partner Oanu is referred in derogatory ways a few times in a “stand-in for racism” way that feels a little odd in a world with as multicultural a design aesthetic and diverse cast as Fairlady. That said, for fans of fantasy and mysteries — either, or both — Fairlady #1 will be an enjoyable read. There aren’t enough stories like this on the stands today, old-school detective stories that allow you to pick up a single issue and enjoy a complete story, whether the overarching mystery is solved or not.

Credit: Greg Land (Marvel Comics)

Symbiote Spider-Man #1
Written by Peter David
Art by Greg Land, Iban Coello, Jay Leisten and Frank D’Armata
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

The Black-Suited Spider-Man receives a frivolous “untold tale” in the debut of Symbiote Spider-Man from Peter David and Greg Land. Set mere days after Secret Wars, Peter is still adjusting to his new suit of “alien technology,” while Mysterio attempts to walk the straight and narrow — that is, if the Symbiote Spider-Man doesn’t drag him back into a life of crime. While Peter David’s script fits neatly into established Spider-Man continuity, the story never really transcends just a nostalgic Spidey lark from days gone by. While artist Greg Land fares better with the capes-and-tights action, he too stumbles during the character moments this book needs to justify itself. But all the canny continuity and well-rendered action never really explains why Symbiote Spider-Man #1 needed to exist in the first place.

But that said, continuity-minded fans will find lots to love with this newest debut. Though Peter David’s script is “all-new,” fans will instantly recognize the time period and era of comic storytelling in which this issue evokes. While this adds a bit of classic novelty to the issue, but it also hamstrings the storytelling, mainly due to David’s stilted, sometimes overwritten dialogue, right down to a punchline that’s uncomfortably similar to a one-liner from The Lego Movie 2 trailers. David’s focus on Mysterio, as synergistic as it may be to the upcoming Spider-Man: Far From Home film, also saps the energy of the comic overall while also adding a jarring, maudlin turn into Beck’s latest turn toward major crime. I know this sort of “seriousness” and purple prose is part and parcel of David’s work, but here it seems a bit out of place.

And speaking of out of place, nothing in this issue is more out of place than the major feature of The World Trade Center for little else than a visual. While trying to escape the Human Fly, Spidey is bounding over the city, worrying in a thought bubble about the next longer jump — a jump that is revealed to be between Tower 1 and Tower 2 of the WTC. And while one might understand the impulse to establish this book in a certain time and place, it’s clear based on this execution that it’s still too soon — it feels hollow at best and exploitative at worst. Had the script actually done more with the visual, beyond using it for staging of a fight, it could have been a powerful moment. But as it stands now, it is just a cheap visual in a largely forgettable comic.

But while David’s script disappoints, artist Greg Land emerges as the “Most Improved” of this issue. Thanks to an energy little seen in some of his more recent work. Though the World Trade Center fight sequence is a bit uncomfortable during the establishing shots, once Land, inker Jay Leisten, and colorist Frank D’Armata zoom in closer to the action, the issue comes to kinetic life. Neatly laid into cinematic, classically minded panel layouts, the art team capture the shadows, speed, and fluidity of motion of Spidey as he works to squash the Human Fly and save a stolen painting.

The trio’s attention to action also spreads outward to Spidey and Mysterio’s showdown. Though set in a much more densely detailed setting (Beck’s cluttered hideout), Land goes for the gusto here, pinging the black-suited Spidey around the staging amid Mysterio’s swirling neon smoke. Unfortunately, he still has a lot of trouble with the more quiet scenes. This failing is most readily apparent in the scenes of Peter having discussions with the women in his life, Felicia Hardy and Aunt May. Like David’s script, Land’s pencils here still can’t help but look wooden, undercutting the emotions of the scene. When the masks come on the comic really comes to life, but stops dead once we see the people underneath.

Though a neat window into Peter Parker's past that fits into established canon, Symbiote Spider-Man #1 stands as an “untold tale” that never really justifies rolling out in the first place. Saddled with a hammy script with at least one questionable moment, not to mention artwork that drags when it really counts, Symbiote Spider-Man #1 should have been left in the past.

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