Best Shots Reviews: SUPERMAN #18, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: GOLDEN CHILD, X-FORCE #3

Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child #1
Credit: Rafael Grampá/Jordie Bellaire/John Workman/Deron Bennett (DC Black Label)
Credit: Ivan Reis/Joe Prado/Alex Sinclair (DC)

Superman #18
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

A brand-new era of Clark Kent’s life begins this week - neither with a bang nor a whimper, but with a press conference. Unfortunately, with the real story having long been blown by publicity and social media, there’s not much happening in Superman #18 that you couldn’t already glean from the cover. Without much of an emotional core or any real consequences, this is the equivalent of a written and illustrated press release - there’s a new status quo in town, but only the most diehard of Super-fans will find much reason to care.

To writer Brian Michael Bendis’ credit, there’s something interesting about the pillar of Truth, Justice and the American Way revealing his secret identity willingly - seeing Clark Kent choose to disclose who he is publicly has the potential for more drama and humanity than having him outed to the world. But that said, I’m not really convinced this reveal has been truly justified yet - Bendis takes some stabs ranging from the (second) death of Jor-El to Clark realizing his associations with The Daily Planet are already well-known, but we haven’t seen Superman be affected enough by any of these events to set up such a massive shake-up.

And that’s where this issue feels like so much of a missed opportunity. In a lot of ways, it’s surprising to see Bendis seemingly shy away from the emotional ramifications of Clark telling the world who he is - Perry White gets only a half-hearted silent hug, while this long-in-the-making talk with Jimmy Olsen just subverted for cheap laughs. (To be honest, after the blowback from how Bendis brought Iceman out of the closet via Jean Grey’s telepathy, I’m a little surprised that Bendis elects for Lois Lane to spill Clark’s secret to Jimmy off-panel.) Even Clark’s press conference doesn’t really connect, in part because Bendis is peppering us with word balloons as well as panels criss-crossing the various heroes of the DCU.

It also shows the limits of what artist Ivan Reis can convey in terms of visual storytelling. Reis is the gold standard of the DC artistic bench at the moment, able to sell incredible action sequences with an iconic sense of design, so any book he works on will look at least somewhat engaging - but while he’s able to bring some widescreen flourish to beats like Superman touching down for this momentous press conference, he isn’t able to shoulder the emotional void that Bendis’ script has left him. Beats like Jimmy smirking when he’s about to tell Clark he already knows his secret are easy to miss, while the silent page of Clark telling Perry feels like a swing and a miss. That said, his work on Clark himself is a highlight of the book, with a mournful look on his face as he makes these big decisions for himself.

But ultimately, the way that Bendis has structured this series really works against this reveal, in part because this already abrupt press conference just… sort of ends, with a formless epilogue of Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom conveying little in the way of menace. (To be honest, the real threat feels more like how Clark expects to live both of his lives without scrutiny or accountability -given the number of Superman 'scoops' he’s delivered all these years, does he really expect he’s going to continue life as a crusading journalist? Hopefully Bendis will address these concerns in future issues, but it’s a little frustrating to have exactly zero blowback here.)

Despite Bendis and company promising this issue will be the beginning of a huge paradigm shift for the Man of Steel, the reveal of Superman #18 isn’t a punchline to anything, and with no measurable fallout anywhere on the page, it leaves this press conference to be… well, just a press conference. There’s nothing new we didn’t already know, no conflict or seemingly any real stakes here - we’re sitting here absorbing someone’s speech in the same way all the assembled journalists around The Daily Planet are. Even with Ivan Reis’ solid artwork, there’s little to get readers excited about Superman #18, as Clark Kent’s biggest decision winds up feeling more anticlimactic than you could imagine.

Credit: Rafael Grampa (DC/Black Label)

Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child #1
Written by Frank Miller
Art by Rafael Grampa and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by John Workman and Deron Bennett
Published by DC/Black Label
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Frank Miller and Rafael Grampa tackles election tampering and the Anti-Life Equation in their own insanely singular way in Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child #1. Focusing exclusively on the 'children' of the DC Trinity - Superman’s children Lara and Jonathan, as well as Carrie Kelly, now grown up as the all-new Batwoman - Miller tackles the political tensions of today, feeling both as crazy as you might expect and more poetic than it has any right to be. Combined with Grampa’s immensely detailed, kinetic, and sometimes overwhelming artwork, The Golden Child delivers a fever dream of a one-shot.

Though the plot itself is fairly spartan as a pitch, Miller takes his usual Miller-esque path to get there. It’s election time in Gotham City, but this news cycle has been dominated by violence and protesting. Protests intensified by the “opposition party’s” use of Joker Gangs jacked up on drugs. Carrie Kelly, now The Batwoman, and the Sons of Batman are trying to keep the peace, operating out of the Bat-Bunker seen in previous DKR entries. But Lara and her younger brother Jon Kent - a sort of zen, monkish take on the Son of Steel we’ve gotten to know over the last few years - suspect Apokolips’ influence in the violence. Does that make much sense? Not really, and even when we see the Joker teaming up with Darkseid, there’s little explanation why. The tone here is much more The Dark Knight Strikes Back and less Batman's "Year One."

Though that only took me a paragraph to describe, Frank Miller takes much, much more time. Sweeping readers through the broader strokes of this oversized one-shot, Miller presents the plot more like a tone poem and less like a comic script. Meaning most of the story beats are presented with lofty narration and vague textual clues about the narrative. The artwork does far more heavy lifting when it comes to story clarity. While the theatrical tone and satirical edge is appreciated, one can’t help but wonder just how much better this would have been had it been leaner, more formalist. Or, at the very least, a few pages lighter.

That said, it is hard to get enough of the production elements of this one-shot thanks to the art and lettering team. Rafael Grampa, who gives this whole one-shot an impressively expressive yet highly inventive look, truly shines in this far-off Elseworld. Evoking some of the same hyperstylized energy of Miller himself, Grampa’s pages, enriched by the deep colors of Jordie Bellaire, consistently impress throughout. After a fairly threadbare opening, mostly focused on establishing shots of the Kent family, every page after is positively saturated with detail or some kind of flowing action sequence. One particularly inspired sequence is set in an abandoned arcade turned “operating table” for Carrie, in which Grampa and Bellaire really show out with thin neon framing and cramped action staging.

Letterers John Workman and Deron Bennett provide the icing on the cake. By finding a fun balance between the prose-like narration borders of Miller’s past work and dynamically placed narration captions, the pair bring Miller’s script to life in a really exceptional way. While I think the one-shot could have been strengthened by stronger indications of who exactly was speaking in the boxes, Workman and Bennett add nicely to the dream-logic and occasionally unsettling boom of the dialogue and narration, blurring the distinctions between both well.

While the name Frank Miller doesn’t carry the same cultural currency it once did, Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child should earn back some goodwill with readers. Provided a power and dread by the script, aspects strengthened by the impressive art team and skilled letterers, this latest entry into the Dark Knight Returns saga proves to be more of a worthy weekly read and less of a cult curiosity that you can wait to be collected. Both too strange to live and too rare to die, Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child #1 is a high point for late period Frank Miller.

Credit: Dustin Weaver (Marvel Comics)

X-Force #3
Written by Benjamin Percy
Art by Josh Cassara and Guru e-FX
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

X-Force #3 walks back that big thing from issue #1 that we knew wouldn’t stick, but it does some good work in establishing what the team is and why its existence is necessary. A lot of the buzzwords that writer Benjamin Percy threw around in the lead-up to the book like “deniable operations” rear their heads here, and the sense of unease and restlessness in the mutant ranks has become more apparent. Artist Josh Cassara continues his good work on the series, offering up almost a smoky counterpoint Rod Reis’ work on New Mutants. This is a team that’s going to get their hands dirty, that much is clear.

Wolverine and Quentin Quire continue their rescue of Domino, while Jean Grey and Beast work to bring Professor X back to life in this issue. Percy is able to use both storylines as opportunities to ask questions about this new mutant society - why should humanity trust mutants more now that they have their own country? How can humans trust that mutants (especially Professor X) even are who they say they are? And just how safe are mutants on Krakoa? These are great questions to consider, and had Percy been able to speed up the action in the first couple of issues, they would have made X-Force a more immediately gripping read.

Percy’s dialogue comes through a bit clunkier than we’ve seen some of these characters in other books. I don’t think that’s because Percy is a bad writer. I just think that we have so many looks at these characters in less grim settings that the second they start talking about Krakoan defenses and the role of X-Force, the dialogue starts to feel like the linguistic equivalent of a kid wearing their dad’s suit. The pacing suffers for that as well. Through three issues, the plotting feels extremely slow, almost as if Percy needs to bide his time for other elements of the world to be established elsewhere in the line before he can fully dive in. (As evidenced from all of the other books kind of just paying lip service to the events of X-Force to this point.)

But I do like Cassara’s approach a lot. He does a great job with his character expressions and body language. He’s able to switch from the tense drama of certain settings, to out and out horror and then flip over to action set pieces without feeling forced. His art is a great guide for the story and the visuals tell us so much that I wish Percy would get on with the set up. I have a hunch that future “missions” in this book with this creative team will sing due to the stealthy nature of the team. Tagging in after Dean White’s first two issues, Guru-eFX brings a great level of grime to the dark underbelly of the X-Books. I am so thankful that this series changes up the visual style from the more traditional work that we see in books like Marauders and X-Men that are much more forward-facing than this book.

X-Force is intriguing. It doesn’t feel like it’s fully out of the starting gate just yet, but it is gaining steam amongst the Dawn of X books because it’s able to consistently deliver on working toward its premise. Consistency is a major key to monthly superhero comic books. Percy and Cassara are a team that feels united in their vision and approach to this book. X-Force is carving out its dark little niche in the Krakoan corner of the Marvel Universe and fans of mysterious, espionage-adjacent storytelling and going to want to check in on this one.

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