Best Shots Reviews: AVENGERS - NO ROAD HOME #10, BATMAN #69, UNCANNY X-MEN #16

Uncanny X-Men #16
Credit: Salvador Larroca/Guru e-FX (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Yasmine Putri (Marvel Comics)

Avengers: No Road Home #10
Written by Mark Waid, Jim Zub, and Al Ewing
Art by Sean Izaakse, Marico Menyz, and Erick Arciniega
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Marvel Comics’ latest weekly epic closes with the deeply resonant Avengers: No Road Home #10. What starts as a standard climatic superhero battle ends as a poetic tribute to the House of Ideas, led by one of their enduring icons, The Vision. While I fear the ending might not have the same thematic weight for casual readers that haven’t be on board the last nine weeks, Mark Waid, Al Ewing, and Jim Zub still bring this series “home” in a big way, if you’ll forgive the turn of phrase. Brought to vibrant life by the art team of Sean Izaakse, Marico Menyz, and Erick Arciniega, Avengers: No Road Home #10 speaks well to the power of stories, why these comics have endured for so long and meant to much to so many people, all in the service of holding back the darkness, both literally and figuratively. It is a hell of a time.

When we last left this ragtag team, Nyx, the Mother of Night had reclaimed her shards of power and holed up in a house in Long Island of all places, in order to remake reality as eternal night. Under any other writer team, what follows would have been an issue-long fight scene, but the No Road Home team turn it into so, so much more. Led by the Vision, Zub, Waid, and Ewing literally fight back the night with imagination, turning Nyx’s Long Island fortress into a window into the “House of Ideas,” where the Synthezoid Avenger summons past teams and characters from his memory to combat Nyx’s darkness. I will get to the myriad of cameos the art team summon here momentarily, but the dialogue here absolutely soars.

Gone is the witty banter of battle and in its stead is a deeply stirring monologue from Vision. A monologue exclusively about the power of imagination. “Reality isn’t about rules,” Vision intones. “It’s about flying.” The scene then builds to a fever pitch, pitting Nyx against the full might of the “Amazing”, the “Astonishing”, and the “Fantastic”; an entire double page splash of the darkness being fought back by “The House of Ideas,” led by the Vision, who transforms into the spitting image of the original Human Torch from Marvel Comics #1.

It is a touch deus ex machina, admittedly, but the way the team present this scene is superhero comic books in its purest form. From the wonderful dialogue of the script to the iconic cameos and rich colors of the art team, I will admit a certain difficulty keeping my eyes dry while reading it. As a single comic experience it really shines. Obviously it will have a bit more punch for those who have kept up with the series, especially in the back half once the team settles into their new status quos. But for my money, no recent comic books aside from a few annuals have spoken to the power of these characters better than Avengers: No Road Home #10 does.

That same power also radiates from the artwork of this finale as well. Lovingly rendered by Sean Izaakse, Marico Menyz, and Erick Arciniega, the trio start with a little and then balloon out to have quite a lot in order to battle the Mother of Night. Anchoring a stark white and starry night background with the impressive character models of Nyx and the redesigned Vision, the team work the “stage” of the opening’s blankness with panel-less layouts filled with the characters, ala Sandman. Then once the synthetic man realizes that “stories are windows,” he simply conjures one, with Ms. Marvel, Bucky Barnes, Ironheart, and Wiccan waiting on the other side to attack.

From there, the team just goes completely buck-wild with comic book action and cameos. From that one single “panel” springs damn near the entire roster of Marvel heroes, ranging from the original five X-Men in their yellow-and-blue classic uniforms, to the Man-Thing, She-Hulk, and the Heroes for Hire. Plus a bunch more too fantastic to spoil here, but let’s just say, fans of ‘90s X-Men looks will be happy. Izaakse’s thick, but appealing pencils really sell these moments, and overall emotions of the script, even in the back half where our heroes settle into life beyond this adventure. Combine that expressiveness with the rich, warm colors of Menyz and Arciniega and you have a finale that looks as great as it reads.

Weekly series storytelling is a tough needle to thread, but somehow Avengers: No Road Home managed to do it. Though it will surely stand up better as a collected read, each issue of this series has either thrilled, moved, or entertained - and sometimes accomplished all three. I had high hopes for the finale and it more than delivered. Now we just have to wonder if this crew can go for the hat trick further down the line. Eyes front, True Believer!

Credit: Yanick Paquette (DC)

Batman #69
Written by Tom King
Art by Yanick Paquette and Nathan Fairbairn
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

It’s not the destination that matters. It’s the journey.

That’s the thought that kept echoing through my mind as I read Batman #69, Tom King’s finale to his audaciously - sometimes frustratingly - experimental “Knightmares” arc. We’ve known for weeks now the origins of this fractured and kaleidoscopic story - namely, that Batman is trapped in a never-ending nightmare fueled by Scarecrow toxins - but here we witness the Dark Knight’s greatest escape.

Or do we? That’s the thing that’s so brazen about this finale, in that, like a dream, its loopy structure is fueled by implication, not by concrete narrative. Seeing Batman beat the Scarecrow isn’t even seen, it’s basically an afterthought - something we’ve already seen a thousand times before. That’s the thing that King gets about a villain like this - the battle isn’t over when you’ve punched Jonathan Crane in the jaw, it’s how the Dark Knight is able to escape his mind-bending traps. Yet having such a psychedelic high concept is also innately character-driven, and the secret to King’s twist winds up cutting straight to the core of who Batman is as a person, even if nary a punch or a Batarang is ever thrown.

And that might be frustrating for some readers who prefer a little bit more literalism to their storytelling - while Batman does lay out some connective threads between the previous "Knightmares" issues, you have to remember that this is a dream, and that once your conscious mind is able to focus on that unreality, it breaks apart. But in the meantime, King is able to touch upon some troubling truths to the Dark Knight, the secret of his great “suicide” that might have doomed his marriage to Selina Kyle before it even began. And in so doing, King is setting traps within traps within traps - that perhaps Bruce Wayne’s cataclysmic response to being left at the altar might not be about being spurned by Catwoman, but his realization that his mission might be the only devotion he has room in his heart to sustain. Combine that with a brand-new adversary who winds up tying nicely into an early Tom King joint, and you’ve got a storyline that might have been messy and fragmented, but I think ultimately sticks the landing.

But I think so much of this finale succeeds thanks to Yanick Paquette. While much has been made - justifiably so - about King mainstays like Lee Weeks, Mitch Gerads, and Jorge Fornes tag-teaming on this series, I think that Paquette is really a pitch-perfect choice to wrap up this storyline. At the end of the day, all roads lead back to Selina Kyle, and Paquette’s portrayal of her is breathtaking. She isn’t hyper-exaggerated in the style of some superhero comics, but might more precisely be considered as idealized - which is exactly how Bruce has viewed her as well, putting her on a pedestal perhaps even higher after the dissolution of their wedding day. Teaming up with colorist Nathan Fairbairn, Paquette also does a superb job at selling the dance premise that King sets up - which is no small feat, because in the hands of many other creators, the resulting visuals would have been goofy rather than haunting. But there’s a real sense of heartbreak to this final waltz that I think really lays down the mood of this issue nicely.

Like the previous issues of this storyline, there will be readers who vehemently disagree with my assessment of “Knightmares,” that its ephemeral, shifting narrative feels dramatically unsatisfying, for all its outre storytelling choices and all the things King has left unsaid. To be honest, they might not be wrong, either. But given the high concept of this storyline - being trapped in a never-ending series of bad dreams - I think this experimental approach is justified, that that the threads that come together are intentional, rather than an oversight. Ultimately, this storyline never was about how does Batman beat the Scarecrow - escaping his trap was all we needed to see in the first place. But with a new antagonist on the horizon - along with the looming threat of Bane - it seems there’s new depths for Batman’s long dark night of the soul to continue to explore.

Credit: Salvador Larroca/Guru e-FX (Marvel Comics)

Uncanny X-Men #16
Written by Matthew Rosenberg
Art by Salvador Larroca and Guru e-FX
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

“I’m a mutant, Steve. Any country I ever had has been taken from me long ago.”

Despite a win against the MLF, the X-Men still have their backs up against a wall. Despite Matthew Rosenberg’s good work with them across the last seven issues, it’s hard not to feel like there isn’t a clear way forward for the team. However, Rosenberg has been making some interesting strides with the reevaluation of Scott Summers and his legacy. Salvador Larroca remains the book’s weak link overall, but he turns in a strong effort here, even if he’s not able to prop up certain moments when needed. X-Men has always been a character drama exaggerated by the scale of superhero comic BOOKs, and you can feel this book straining towards that, but never quite getting there in a way that’s wholly satisfactory.

A large reason that Rosenberg’s scripts are failing to fully connect is Salvador Larroca’s art. In a vacuum, it’s not completely ineffective art — I’m almost certain that if you lined up the finished pages next to the script that Larroca is delivering exactly what’s on the page. The problem here is that Larroca does absolutely nothing to elevate these moments or make changes that better serve the flow of the story. The result is panels that are awkwardly framed, and some that are completely unnecessary. We get reaction shots to things where the characters reacting are completely obscured by something else, making the panel choice absolutely baffling. And for the most part, every character has the same slightly downturned grimace across the entirety of the issue. There’s just such sloppiness evident in the linework. (To illustrate my point, Cyclops pretty clearly has two left hands at one point.) And none of the big moments feel big because Larroca never gets them there. We just keep seeing this level of inconsistency from him.

Which is a shame, because I think Rosenberg is trying to do something here. Cyclops and Captain America have another talk that will continue to help define their dynamic moving forward. Cyclops and his team have a talk about what leadership means when everyone in the room has been a leader of the X-Men, leading them to take a more democratic approach moving forward. We’re treated to a new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and a “surprise” character appears. It still feels like Rosenberg is searching a bit, trying to get us somewhere that reads like the X-Men we know and love but takes into account everything these characters have been through. That’s a big task. It makes you wonder if, with a different artist, the dynamics of issues like these with their “loud-soft-loud” sort of flow would come through more and read a bit catchier than they do. Because I think that Rosenberg is working in a structure we’re familiar with, but it feels off, and it’s unclear how much of that is by design and how much is runoff from the visual presentation.

If you’re an X-Men fan, you should be reading Uncanny X-Men because there are a lot of foundational elements being laid here. It’s unclear if the arrival of Jonathan Hickman means that those elements will be completely tossed aside, but for now we only have what’s in front of us. And what’s in front of us is a writer who clearly loves the material, searching for the identity of a character, a team and a book that’s been beloved by so many for so long. For most of us reading, we can’t remember a time before the X-Men. This is forever. But something about it has gotten lost, and that’s the journey that this book is on. It’s maybe not the home run that a lot of people are looking for due to a lackluster art team, but if you can look beyond that, I think there’s a lot that works.

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