Best Shots Reviews: DCEASED #2, WAR OF THE REALMS #5, BATMAN #72, THE PRIDE: SEASON 2 #1

Batman #72
Credit: Michael Golden (DC)
Credit: Leinil Francis Yu / Tomeu Morey (DC)

DCeased #2
Written by Tom Taylor
Art by Trevor Hairsine, Stefano Gaudiano, and Rain Beredo
Lettering by Saida Temofonte
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Tom Taylor and Trevor Hairsine’s zombified alternate universe reveals its scope in DCeased #2. Zooming out to give readers a better look at the new Anti-Life Equation-affected world, Taylor and Hairsine start to show just how far gone this Earth is. Unfortunately, that’s about it, as the series still hasn’t found its feet beyond the novelty of its gory premise.

But thankfully, the series’ shambling narrative hasn’t buried Taylor’s knack for compelling characterization, as the cast starts to coalesce in this second issue. Gathering characters like Superman, Lois Lane, Black Canary, Green Arrow, and the Super Sons, Taylor’s consistently funny and grounded dialogue offers a compelling ying to the rotting yang of alternate universe horror. Art team Trevor Hairsine, Stefano Gaudiano, and Rain Beredo, meanwhile, seemed to have really found footing with this sophomore issue, detailing the apocalyptic (Apokoliptic?) action with rough-hewn, Neal Adams-esque pencils, given definition by Gaudiano’s heavy inks and Beredo’s giallo-inspired colors. Zombies may be played out in a post-Walking Dead marketplace, but DCeased #2 starts to show signs of life.

Mere days after Cyborg was aimed like a techno-organic bomb at the Earth, the heroes of Earth are caught flat-footed as to how to combat this new necrotic menace. This both works for and against DCeased #2. On the “against” side, this issue is still moving as a zombie’s pace, as Tom Taylor is still very much in the throes of establishing the stakes and cast of the series. Using globally-focused vignettes, starting with a cramped and haunting look at Aquaman discovering the outbreak, Taylor is working overtime to show just how the world is falling and who exactly is left standing. Though I appreciate the world-building, it still reads a bit too decompressed to truly entertain.

But occasionally, these scenes really nail it, furthering the horrific thesis of the title. For example, one of this issue’s major set pieces details how Green Lantern Hal Jordan falls to the Equation, having checked his phone in the middle of an impromptu camping trip with Green Arrow and Black Canary. The scene overall recalls some of the best parts of Taylor’s Injustice, delivering gallows humor and taut action, brutally realized by the art team. After his infection, Hal lashes out violently with his power ring, unleashing pure eldritch id at his former friends while the ring itself warns that “deadly force has not been authorized.” Unfortunately, the rest of the issue fails to capitalize on this tension and propulsion as it settles into more exposition, but at least we know the potential is there for later issues.

That said, however, the art team of DCeased has quickly found a handle on Taylor’s dark and twisted take on the DCU. Though the narrative might be moving slow, Trevor Hairsine, Stefano Gaudiano, and Rain Beredo’s artwork moves at a much better clip, even with the exposition. Starting with the opening Aquaman scene, which looked ripped right from 28 Days Later, the trio leans into the dense layouts of zombie hordes and crumbling cityscapes of the backgrounds, “spreading the red” as it were, or as much as the rating of the title will allow. The expository scenes sap a bit of this energy for sure, but the team still pepper in harrowing details. Details like whole sections of Metropolis burning in the background while Superman and his family strategize and a gut-wrenching x-ray vision-powered look inside the fallen Daily Planet.

Hairsine also injects a certain expressiveness into this issue. Despite all the zombie epic trappings and tense set pieces, his character models still radiate a very human look and feel. In particular the scenes of Ollie/Dinah and Lois and Clark. Both couples, even with the world falling around them, still play very well off of each other. Sketchy in the best way and sharply honed by Gaudiano’s inks, Hairsine adapts well to the more personable aspects of the issue, tempering the horror with heart.

Not a perfect start for the horror epic, but DCeased #2 portends a possible upswing for the series. Now with the stakes and cast fully assembled, the creative team can now start to move forward instead of continuing to move laterally. Here’s hoping the third installment can use the potential shown here and put some new energy into the old bones of the “superheroes versus zombies” concept.

Credit: Arthur Adams (Marvel Comics)

War of the Realms #5
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Thirty characters. Twenty pages. Ten realms. In Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman’s penultimate issue of War of the Realms, there’s a lot going on just in terms of sheer numbers, and while this creative team works mightily to cram nearly every corner of the Marvel Universe into its page count, the actual storytelling on display is getting stretched beyond the breaking point. While Aaron and Dauterman deliver sharp dialogue and gorgeous visuals, it’s hard to view War of the Realms as a cohesive story — unless you’re intimately familiar with the various tie-ins elsewhere, the main event quickly devolves into little more than a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.

Of course, given the esoteric mythology of Aaron’s long-running Thor series, it’s perhaps not surprising that slamming it against the rest of Marvel’s various franchises might result in a bit of a mess — indeed, beyond saying “the heroes are beating up the bad guys,” it’s challenging to describe this issue’s plot in a way that wouldn’t make me sound like a crazy person. But even with the spectacle-focused central premise, you can see Aaron’s starting to break a sweat juggling characters ranging from Thor to Daredevil to Spider-Man to Ka-Zar to Wolverine amidst the elves, dwarves and Asgardians fighting for their lives — in particular, there are some major plot points involving Thor and Jane Foster that wind up pulling you out of the story almost immediately, simply because Aaron abruptly changes scenes and time frames at the drop of a hat.

But on top of that, you can start to feel the tail wagging the dog a bit, as the majority of this issue are single-panel check-ins with the other Marvel characters headlining their own spin-offs elsewhere. We see the Punisher leading a firing squad of elves, Spider-Man commandeering an army of monstrous arachnids, Wolverine teaming up with the Warriors Three. As individual moments of spectacle, they’re fun, but there’s no context to these team-ups beyond the initial “wow” factor, and thanks to the page count constraints Aaron is working under, there’s no follow-through or explanation for anyone who isn’t sure what’s going on. If you’ve been reading the War of the Realms ancillary stories elsewhere, you might recognize the significance of what these characters are doing, but as the flagship title, these cameos make the overarching story incredibly difficult to follow — and this is coming from a longtime superhero reader.

Dauterman’s artwork shares a lot of qualities with Aaron’s script — it’s fun to look at, but it also suffers a bit from the overall business of juggling this many characters, settings, and high concepts. Seventy-five percent of this issue is told with pages that span from one to three panels, but there are so many characters that Dauterman has to jam in there that the pages never feel particularly clean or easy to follow. On the one hand, that rewards rereading, because there are tons of details you’ll likely miss out on the first time — in particular, I loved a beat where Wakanda’s Dora Milaje race up the sides of buildings to tackle the warring angels of Heven — but it’s going to require a lot of patience from even diehard fans, especially when Dauterman ramps up the rendering in a way that becomes extremely hard to follow. That said, because of the quick snapshot pacing of the script, Dauterman winds up picking his shots nicely with the rest of the Marvel Universe — images of Spider-Man, Ka-Zar and Captain Britain are particular standouts, as is a splash page of Thor returning to the battlefield.

It’s easy to be cynical about superhero events, seeing them not so much as stories as marketing launchpads for new spin-off storylines across the rest of a publishing line — but seeing a team as talented as Aaron and Dauterman buckling under the weight of the War of the Realms does make me wonder if it’s at all possible to deliver a satisfying story in an event-driven ecosystem, regardless of who’s behind the wheel. Perhaps there’s too many moving parts, too many warring directives and not enough story pages — or maybe these stories are steering away from even middle-of-the-road readers and catering only to the diehards willing to buy every last piece of the crossover. It’s not to say that Aaron and Dauterman’s work is purely crass commercialism — you can tell they’re trying to make this story as deliberately as one can, given the circumstances — but I’m not sure that’s enough to make this War of the Realms a critical victory.

Credit: David Finch/Jordie Bellaire (DC)

Batman #72
Written by Tom King
Art by Jorge Fornes, Mikel Janin and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Tom King recently truncated run on Batman feels like it’s hit a wall. Since the wedding that wasn’t, King has turned in work that is conceptually weak, often overwritten and meandering in how it works at moving the chains of plot. This issue is no different - spending its entire page count recounting... well, the last 71 issues. It is tedious and unexpressive. And unfortunately, Mikel Janin’s artwork falls in the same bucket. The only saving grace is Jorge Fornes’ Mazzuchellian tour de force showing us Batman’s knock-down, drag-out fight with Bane, but even that feels so disconnected from the rest of the book.

On some level, it feels like King has written himself into a corner. He mounted trauma after trauma on Bruce Wayne while Bane enacted his Machiavellian plot, and given the writer’s past work, it looked like King might be attempting to say something unique about the man beneath the cowl. Scott Snyder examined Batman through the lens of Gotham. Morrison examined him through the lens of his history. Miller examined him through his relationship to his legacy. King’s big revelation here (delivered in yet another overlong monologue placed over static double-page spreads) amounts to Chumbawamba's 1997 hit, “Tubthumping” - Batman gets knocked down, but he gets up again, you’re never going to keep him down. Which is a fine assessment by the way, but he’s taken this many issues to get us there?

It’s the way he goes about framing this story, too. We aren’t afraid for Bruce. There is no tension in his fight with Bane, because if King has done one thing effectively, it’s blur the lines between what’s really happening to Bruce and what’s not. He’s asked Mikel Janin to deliver multiple double-page spreads that recap past moments or give us incredibly dull ones. The worst being a spread featuring the Bat and the Cat post-wedding jumping through the Gotham skyline in opposite directions. If it’s meant to be revelatory, it’s weak. If it’s meant to be poignant somehow, it’s even weaker. And Janin really lets SketchUp take the wheel in rendering the buildings on that one. Selina and Bruce’s figures are so small that if you didn’t know who they were, they’d be completely unrecognizable. And Janin’s work comes is such stark contrast to Jorge Fornes, the man putting this issue on his back - this issue’s score is just for him and colorist Jordie Bellaire.

While the context of Batman and Bane’s fight is somewhat unclear, Fornes gives it his all. This is visceral work where you really feel the weight of every punch. The standout page has to be Bruce getting up after being thrown into a large family photo and illustrating exactly what King needs from him - the Chumbawamba of it all, if you will. Of course, even great moments like that one are undercut by momentum-stopping double-page spreads, but Fornes gets right back to it after the page turns. He’s trying to give the biggest moments he can coming off of the slower scenes in the book, and by and large it works. His fight choreography really sings. Bellaire also turns in a great issue, managing to bring balances to these two vastly different artists and letting the deep blacks of Fornes’ pages give a lot of moodiness to the book.

There are only 13 issues of Tom King’s Batman left, and given the two big moments toward the end of this book, it’s impossible to know where he’s going to from here. On some level, it feels like he’s got to have more to say than what he has so far. But it also feels like without his trademark nine-panel grids, King is still struggling to properly pace his work. He’s clearly got some talented collaborators across this entire run. But not all of them are able to translate the needs of his scripts in an effective way. That’s on both the artist and the writer, though. Batman #72 is a middling entry in this run that lacks a real narrative punch, despite featuring a whole lot of actual punching.

Credit: Cem Iroz/Mark Dale (Queer Comix/comiXology)

The Pride: Season Two #1
Written by Joe Glass
Art by Cem Iroz and Mark Dale
Lettering by Mike Stock
Published by Queer Comix / ComiXology Originals
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

The Pride: Season Two #1’s biggest weakness is its unintentional lampshading of its own weak points. Set immediately after the events of The Pride: Season One (also now collected on comiXology with additional back-up stories), today’s debut issue of the second arc of this LGBTQ+-centered superhero tale explores the aftermath of Bear’s kidnapping at the hands of the villainous Reverend. Though the Reverend and his superhero mind control scheme has been put to rest, there are new villains afoot, and the Pride find themselves faced with the decision to make some changes to the team to handle the new demands on their abilities in the wake of their first major mission as a team.

The dearth of queer superheroes on the page - and the fact that Marvel touted a nameless two minute cameo as an exciting step forward in LGBTQ+ representation in the MCU - make The Pride a valuable addition to the superhero comics genre. Writer Joe Glass is clearly making an effort to make the world of the Pride as diverse as the LGBTQ+ community of the real world, but it’s here were the script starts to stumble; The Pride, the comic book, and the Pride, the superhero team, both aspire to be all things to all people, and the script’s attempt at confronting the difficulties of this are somewhat at odds with the other creative decisions behind the book.

There’s just something about The Pride: Season Two that feels a bit dated. There are several conversations through the issue about not defining characters solely by their queerness, but Glass’s cast is defined heavily by archetypes - Angel, a drag performer with powers of “confusion,” a character with armor powers codenamed Twink for no other reason than his slight lanky build (presumably a Colossus dig), a literal bear, codenamed Bear. This isn’t unusual of superhero comic books, and definitely runs rampant in the superhero teams The Pride is both inspired by and poking fun at, but for any comic, those choices get trickier when you add in sexuality, gender, and race, and when trying to balance the characters’ campier, tongue-in-cheek roots with this season’s more sincere exploration of what it is to frame yourself, very specifically, as a queer superhero, and what happens when you run into people who don’t want to use that framing for themselves. This issue introduces an asexual character, Hyperon, a powerful hero with a Doctor Manhattan-ish vibe; given how “on the nose” the rest of the characters are, “hyper-rational and not as emotional” feels like a reductive personality match for an ace character, particularly given their anger at FabMan for outing them and “reducing them to a single plane of being” is a key conflict.

A conversation prompted by Angel about allowing straight allies is similarly uncomfortable, and mirrors a conversation also prompted by Angel in the series’ first volume about being an “L.G.B.T.” group instead of just “L.G.B.” The cast here is very cis, and very white - it’s implied Angel identifies as trans, and with no other openly trans characters, it’s not great for a cis writer to seem to exclusively conflate doing drag with being trans. Angel is framed as the more militant member of the Pride on queer issues; in season one her insistence on specifically naming trans folks is framed as quibbling, and compared to “adding an S for straight allies,” while her bristling at straight heroes being recruited for the Pride is framed as segregationist. Glass has Angel specifically call out that word choice, thankfully, but she’s still framed as being exclusionary, when as a trans person of color, she’s absolutely right to be concerned.

With regards to Angel being a person of color, while Cem Iroz delivers some solid, dynamic art here, there are serious issues with Mark Dale’s colors when it comes to the character designs. Both Muscle Mary and Angel are colored as several skin tones lighter than they appeared in the series - both were depicted as black characters with fairly deep skin tones. If it weren’t for her costume and her hair (dreadlocks, not drawn very flatteringly by Iroz), Mary would be almost unrecognizable in some panels with such a variance in skin tones it seems tough to attribute just to different scene lighting. Angel actually is, unrecognizable in several scenes thanks to a new costume; her darker skin tone is now often substantially paler, with a spray tan orange undertone that looks nothing like her original design.

It’s not great that most of the Pride is cis white men, and not great that the black characters are drawn inconsistently, with one completely changed from her original incarnation (and they are definitely the same character, with the same civilian name; I was so confused at first glance I immediately pulled up the first volume to check). While season one felt more satirical and light-hearted in many ways, season two appears to be leaning more into the more sincere and thoughtful moments, without quite as much success so far. It’s clear The Pride: Season Two team is doing their best to deliver an inclusive book, but they’re struggling as much as their characters seem to be. The Pride: Season Two #1 is available through comiXology Unlimited, as is the collected run of the first series. If you’re an Unlimited subscriber with an understandably unscratched itch for queer superheroes, it’s absolutely worth checking out, but much like the uncertain FabMan, The Pride: Season Two has a long way to go to be as thoughtful and inclusive as it’s aiming for.

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