Best Shots Reviews: POWERS OF X #5, HARLEEN #1, STRIKEFORCE #1

Harleen #1 variant
Credit: Stejpan Sejic (DC/Black Label)
Credit: R.B. Silva (Marvel Comics)

Powers of X #5
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by R.B. Silva and Marte Gracia
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Given that they are “two series that are one,” Powers of X has had a different sort of symbiosis with House of X over the past few weeks. While House of X has had the showstopper moments - particularly, the death and resurrection of the X-Men - it’s Powers of X that has had to pick up the check to justify and establish Jonathan Hickman’s out-of-the-box concepts.

But I’ll be honest - at this juncture, I don’t think Hickman needs to prove anything to anyone, which does make the past two issues’ interludes hamper the growing momentum of its sister series. Still, there’s some strong world-building that Hickman and artist R.B. Silva bring to the table, as they set up some new status quos for some upcoming X-titles, but it also feels like a strange bit of housekeeping with only one more issue in the chamber.

In the previous issue of House of X, Hickman laid another game-changer on us, as we learned that not only had the X-Men mastered the power of resurrection, but Charles Xavier himself was the key - that he had used his ever-present Cerebro helmet to create psychic backups of every mutant mind on the planet. But I’d argue that having a flashback with Xavier chatting with Forge on how to build such an apparatus might be overstating the point in lieu of focusing on more interesting storytelling territory. We already know that Xavier is the most powerful telepath in existence, and we know that thanks to Moira MacTaggert, he’s armed with knowledge of the future - do we need to explain how the tires are pumped on the Batmobile, as far as this upgraded Cerebro unit is concerned?

Yet I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that even if Hickman might be verging into navel-gazing territory with stuff like this, it’s still well-written and engaging - he’s juxtaposing real-world scientific concerns with kooky Marvel continuity in a way that forces readers to think. And in that regard, he skips from hard science to financial and business concerns, with another solid backup featuring Xavier and Magneto’s recruitment of Emma Frost, which feels like a strong springboard for Gerry Duggan and Matteo Lolli’s upcoming Marauders series. It’s with these two stories that R.B. Silva really gets to flex his muscles, despite not having any action sequences of any kind — instead, he’s able to play up the expressiveness and charisma for characters like Emma and Forge, who get to become the audience surrogates for peeling away the mystery Hickman’s setting up here.

But these fledgling storylines still get a rough landing with Hickman’s Phalanx storyline in the year 1000 - it’s easily the most science-driven aspect of Powers of X thus far, but so far it’s a storyline in search of an anchor or a punchline. We know the Phalanx are bad, so revealing that they might wipe out the planet as we know it feels obvious from the jump. Some of this is because this far-flung future hasn’t given us any characters to connect with yet - I’m sure Hickman has a plan that will pay off either at the end of this series or in the upcoming Dawn of X, but it’s a very long game he’s playing with such limited real estate, especially when we haven’t seen the excitement of Year 100 in quite some time.

While this issue of Powers of X might be slower than the shock and awe of House of X, it’s not to diminish Hickman and Silva’s work whatsoever - they’re still bringing a level of deliberateness and intelligence to this series that we haven’t seen in an X-book since probably the days of Grant Morrison. That said, I feel like Hickman might be selling his audience a little short with these lengthy explanations - call me naive, but I feel like his concepts are so unassailable that he doesn’t need to justify them to anyone. With only two more issues of this maxiseries to go, Hickman and company can use all the storytelling real estate they can get - while Powers of X has been paying House of X’s tab for a few issues now, I’m betting Hickman has something special saved for this series’ last hurrah.

Credit: Stjepan Šejic (DC/Black Label)

Harleen #1
Story and Art by Stepan Sejic
Lettering by Gabriela Downie
Published by DC Black Label
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

With DC’s Black Label imprint still in its relative infancy, we have yet to really understand the intention behind its creation. I understand that it’s for mature readers, but even that’s been a vague direction. With exception to the revealing look at Bruce Wayne in Batman: Damned, a few more expletives scattered throughout the book and the Elseworlds nature of the stories, there’s not much in terms of a direction for the line. The latest character to get their mature moment in the sun is Harleen, Stepan Sejic’s latest take on Harley Quinn. A creator known for his sexy romance webcomic Sunstone as well as his guest turn on Aquaman, Sejic’s piling on the darkness and mood nicely here, taking readers back to the beginning and fleshing out what turned Harleen Quinzel into the clown-loving mad lady we all know and love.

On the surface, I think this comic works. Sejic obviously has some chops considering he’s used to writing and drawing his own work. Sunstone plays with a lot of different relationship dynamics (albeit in an even more adult context than this book), and he’s able to carry over that skillset here. However, on closer inspection, there are some elements of the book that buckle under the weight of the task at hand, and on some level, just don’t feel like the Harley Quinn that many readers know and understand.

Harley’s a pretty elastic character, much like Batman and the Joker - that’s part of what’s great about her. When Sejic is doing his best work is when Harleen is bouncing off of other more grounded, human characters. She flips off a coworker she doesn’t like. She’s drowning her sorrows at the bar with a friend who is intent on giving her advice. She rambles her way through a meeting with Lucius Fox - in these moments, she feels real. But as soon as Sejic dives back into caption boxes and interior monologue providing tons of exposition, the book slows to a crawl. It’s decompressed in a way where I can understand the approach, but I’m not thrilled about the execution.

But the framing of Harley and Joker’s relationship, is interesting to say the least. We’ve come to understand how toxic this relationship is in the main DC continuity. And for right now, Sejic presents Harley’s interest as a sort of haunted professional curiosity, but also makes it clear in the captions that it blossoms into much more in the future. But despite Sejic’s experience playing with relationship dynamics, the parts that feel the most tedious are the scenes between Harley and Joker which seems to somewhat defeat the draw of the book. I can’t really tell what Sejic wants to say about this relationship because there’s nothing driving it forward other than inevitability. Sejic is mostly sticking to the story we know in terms of this couple’s specific meet-crazy - he just adds a couple more curse words.

The art kind of hits in that weird middle territory, too. Don’t get me wrong - Sejic is a master at drawing sexy people. Pretty much everyone in this book is hot. Even the Joker is hot, which works as a great juxtaposition to his appearances in Harleen’s nightmares. Sejic is excellent at communicating body language and facial expression. There is so much acting happening and that really props up the more cliche pieces of dialogue while making the better exchanges even more effective. But Sejic’s inconsistency in line weight across the book is distracting. Some backgrounds look more like quickly digitally painted over backgrounds than thoughtful attempts at creating scenery. In general, Sejic seems less interested in shots that aren’t close-ups or parts that he enjoys. There’s an ebb and flow to the quality of the art in the connective tissue scenes of the book that is unfortunate, because when Sejic is on his game, he’s doing things to communicate mood and emotion that so many other comics artists have trouble with.

Diehard Harley Quinn fans will likely want to check this out, but some might similarly be disappointed. Sejic doesn’t stray too far from the story you know - in fact, within these pages, the story you know doesn’t go very far. The small additions that Sejic makes about Harley’s time in school are largely inconsequential, and the iconic accent is nowhere to be seen. When this book is clicking, it’s an enjoyable read, but some of it seems like Sejic himself was having trouble getting his head around what he was working on. That inconsistency holds Harleen back from being a real standout for Black Label.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Strikeforce #1
Written by Tini Howard
Art by German Peralta and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Marvel gets their own Justice League Dark in the debut of Strikeforce #1 from Tini Howard. A dark remnant of the War of the Realms called the Vridai are making themselves known, a group that can wear the skin of anyone and turn them to their destructive aims. Blade once faced these impish skin-walkers back in the day, but now he needs a team to take the fight to them — outside of the view of Avengers Mountain.

Described as a “horror comic about trust” by Howard, she certainly makes good on sowing discord throughout this ragtag team from the jump. Framed for a horrific break-in at a classified research station housing infectious diseases, Angela, Spider-Woman and Wiccan are swept into a hidden war in which the enemy could be anyone and everyone. Though this opening issue could have surely used a more tighter pencil scheme to match its wonderfully moody coloring from Jordie Bellaire, Strikeforce #1 brings some big X-Force and JLD energy with these ex- Avengers.

Taking a few tonal cues from Stephen King’s The Stand, Tini Howard opens this issue on a truly harrowing note. A research center, one specializing in infectious diseases and filled with staff and their families, is under attack. Weirder still, it looks like some familiar faces are behind the attack. From there Howard starts to pull the curtain back on the hook of this series. Positing a sort of supernatural “Secret Invasion”, Howard reveals a sort of silent infiltration, one in which the Vridai, visually inspired also by Stephen King in particular the vampires from Salem’s Lot, kidnap victims, hold them hostage, and then masquerade as their counterparts.

The added wrinkle of their taking victims adds a layer of creepiness to the hook, but Howard goes a step further. She adds a sort of “perception block” to the creatures, meaning you can only become aware of them once you’ve seen them in their true form. Blade did all the way back in the ‘70s, providing the issue a fun, classic Marvel Horror throwback sequence, so he’s been keeping this secret for years. Now the team has to bear it with him, giving the whole bloody affair a nicely covert feel, setting it apart from the large-scale heroics of the main title.

But while Howard is really working hard to establish the hook and character’s voices, the pencils fail the energy of her script slightly. Graced with a sort of languished, haphazard look at times from penciler German Peralta, the rough-hewn look of it really clashes against Howard’s grimly funny tone. The opening in particular is an egregious example of this. Laid out in bumpy, weirdly nebulous wide set panels, the usual velocity and focus of Jennifer Walters is rendered in a lumbering slog to the final twist page.

There are shining times, however. Like the trip back to the 1970s, which finds Peralta tightening up considerably, detailing Blade in his older costume taking on a trio of Vridai in a dingy, evocative Berlin alley. But Strikeforce’s real weapon is Jordie Bellaire, who takes very well to the more creepy, covert tone. While Peralta’s pencils lack in points, Bellaire’s colors never do, moving from location to location effortlessly, injecting a lush, lived-in feeling with each scene. As a matter of fact, a lot of Strikeforce’s tonal shifts look and feel a lot like her work on Image Comics’ Injection, another bizarre tale of misfits fighting the unknown. Bellaire is a real asset to Strikeforce, and I hope Peralta can be too in future issues.

Operating in the fringes and weird corners of the Marvel Universe, Strikeforce #1 is a solid enough debut. Armed with the droll wit and spooky tendencies of Tini Howard, this debut gathers an engagingly strange team and aims them at an even stranger problem. Though the pencils leave something to be desired, the colors are absolutely spot-on, bringing a sort of indie horror flavor to the world of superheroes. While not exactly groundbreaking, Strikeforce #1 feels like the start of a new cult hit.

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