Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN UNIVERSE #1, THE PUNISHER #13

The Punisher #13
Credit: Greg Smallwood (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Nick Derington (DC)

Batman Universe #1
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Nick Derington and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Josh Reed
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

While most DC fans are likely familiar with Brian Michael Bendis' takeover of the Man of Steel, his 2018 debut with the Dark Knight has been released to the Direct Market in Batman Universe #1. Still, based on the serialized nature of the original Walmart stories, the seams can't help but show a little bit in this collected edition — still, while this story's focus is a little all over the place, Bendis gives Batman a unique (and surprisingly funny) voice, while artist Nick Derington delivers page after page of showstopping material that is well worth the price of admission.

But the idea of a Batman "Universe" is simultaneously this book's greatest strength and its biggest weakness. On the one hand, Bendis is playing with a Brave and the Bold-style team-up series, with the Dark Knight not just matching wits with the Riddler, but incorporating guest stars as varied as Deathstroke, Jinny Hex, and Green Arrow. These cameos sometimes feel like putting the cart before the horse, however — particularly when Batman has to take a detour to Jinny's small town garage to deliver some exposition — but other beats, like Deathstroke giving the Dark Knight a run for his money in hand-to-hand combat, feels like there's definitely some promise to the story to come.

What's most interesting to me, however, is that with all these cameos, Bendis winds up taking unnecessary detours against the chief asset that Batman Universe has to offer: namely, Bendis' take on the Caped Crusader himself. Batman isn't a motormouth like Bendis' take on, say, Spider-Man, but there's something quietly funny about his take on the character - even a running gag of people asking Batman if he's talking to them, as he and Alfred trade notes via earpiece in the middle of a battle royale. But even Bendis' intro pages, where we see the world through Batman's eyes as he races to confront the Riddler, shows a visceral excitement that I hope Bendis will continue to tap into with future installments.

Of course, I've spent a lot of time talking about the writing here, but it's Nick Derington's artwork that is the most unequivocal vote in this book's favor. Derington is one of the hottest artists in comic books for a reason — he's got that Frank Quitely sense of deliberateness to his compositions, with the eye-catchingly clean linework of someone like a Kris Anka or a Chris Samnee — and if you're wondering how he tackles the Dark Knight, well, you're not likely to be disappointed. Derington's Batman is svelte and streamlined, but his action sequences are fun and frenetic — in particular, watching Batman mow through a crowd of Riddler decoys is one of the highlights of the issue, as well as Bruce's one-on-one with Deathstroke. Derington adds a lot of energy to the mix that Bendis' script might not necessarily have with another collaborator — because Derington is able to deliver the goods so effectively on his end, it lets Bendis stretch his muscles in other directions.

Batman Universe #1 is an undeniably gorgeous book, whose incredible artwork far outweighs any wonkiness in its story structure. If you're looking for a fun action romp whose cameos represent the best of continuity rather than the restrictiveness of it — or you're just looking to see one of the definitive DC artists of the moments strut his stuff — you could do a whole lot worse than this.

In Case You Missed It!

Credit: Greg Smallwood (Marvel Comics)

The Punisher #13
Written by Matthew Rosenberg
Art by Szymon Kudranski and Antonio Fabela
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Adrian Care
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

This volume of the Punisher makes a great case in the argument for Marvel’s titles batting much deeper than just its flagship titles. Frank Castle seems to be gaining more buzz lately, thanks to his heroic turn in War of the Realms, as well as his upgrade to Avengers status in Savage Avengers. But the juicy stuff readers should be investing more in is the flagship Punisher series, which brings a best-of-both-worlds approach to the adventures of Frank Castle.

There are a few versions of The Punisher that often vie for ascendency in the eyes of hardcore fans. The gritty and brutal street-level vigilante. The war vet with the extensive military backstory that has informed recent creators take on the character. There’s also the version of Frank we’re seeing now who has more interactions with the mainstream MCU.

But what Rosenberg is giving us here is a well weighted balance of all the above. It’s something that made Rick Remender’s turn on the character great too, but Rosenberg’s work feels like it stands on its own without mimicking too closely the things that worked for other creators. Following Baron Zemo's retreat from Bagalia into the arms of the Kingpin in New York, the Punisher has come back home to tear a path to Zemo in a relentless pursuit.

Carefully stitched together through character and events so that it doesn’t veer too forward into the ridiculous (or too far from what makes the character endure), Rosenberg's narrative throughline that started well before the war in Bagalia still allows for each issue to stand on its own to and fend for itself, while all serving part of a greater whole. It’s a consistent effort where you can hardly see the seams. There are still instances where the balance falters and it feels like we’ve spent a little too much time with Zemo and not enough with Frank, while the Kingpin goes from being a story device to too big of a factor in the story, but the creative team recover from things like this quickly. They’re very good at cleaning as they go.

Rosenberg brings his continuity A-game, too, making sure that the Mayor Fisk character here is in-line with the same one we’re seeing over in Daredevil and across other current Marvel Universe books. There’s also nods to Rosenberg’s 2017 Kingpin mini-series and a mention of ‘90s throwback V.I.G.I.L. This title goes deep with its punisher mythology. It’s the type of detail that rewards readers for paying attention and makes the work feel less disposable and part of a wider tapestry.

There’s even room for some great social commentary that feels particularly timely, as we see Frank give his two cents on police officers wearing his Death's Head skull as a form of some seriously misguided hero worship: “I’ll say this once. We’re not the same. You took an oath to uphold the law, you help people. I gave all that up a long time ago. You don’t do what I do. Nobody does. You boys need a role model? His name is Captain America, and he’d be happy to have you.”

It’s a very potent and aware statement that doesn’t write Frank off as a psychotic vigilante, but shows a very self-aware version of the character that strengthens the side of the book that takes itself seriously. Between this version and the recent handling of The Punisher in Chip Zdarsky’s Daredevil it shows there are some very compelling angles from which to write great Frank Castle material.

Szymon Kudranski’s art performs a decathlon as it shifts modes between intimidating vigilante violence, political machinations, philosophical debates and surprise turns. His style can be an acquired taste, however: it’s not the straightforward superhero fare you’ll find in an Avengers book, there’s no cartoony leanings. It’s not the more streamlined style of say a Hawkeye book either. It’s gritty, it’s hard-boiled, but it’s not exactly indie either. It’s its own beast, and because of this the book wears even more of its own identity. Kudranski is aided by the great color work that uses lighting to optimum effect in the issue. Turning the brightness of settings up or down gives each segment some separation and distinction but the scene where Frank deters a knife attack in alley is pitch perfect seedy New York after dark stuff.

Amidst the impending X-launches, Conan spotlights, Avengers love and the still-smoldering ashes of War of the Realms, Punisher is a book that feels like it should get more attention. The scope of its ongoing arc is quite big and there’s a lot to like for casual fans and diehard fans alike.

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