Best Shots Reviews: BATMAN #88, JUSTICE LEAGUE #40

"Justice League #40" preview
Credit: DC
Credit: Tony S. Daniel (DC)

Batman #88
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Guillem March and Tomeu Morey
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Three issues in, and James Tynion IV’s time with Batman so far has been... fine. Currently, the book feels unsettled. Tynion has been able to get into the horror-adjacent groove that usually finds in his other work, and it almost feels like Guillem March is working against him. It’s not that the art is bad, but it is a bit of a mismatch in terms of approach. As Tynion’s narrative attempts to build some dramatic undertones, March’s art undermines that. His work with Catwoman is specifically incongruent, and it leads to even the big moments in the book feeling like a non-event.

As I’ve noted previously, given his track record with the character elsewhere, Tynion obviously has an idea of what goes into a Batman book. But it definitely feels like he’s missing some of the elements that made his Detective Comics run a winner. Without as many characters to bounce Bruce off of, Tynion has to rely on his artist to drum up tension in the script. The work March does with Riddler is impressive, as he’s able to lean into how unsettling Nygma’s gaunt, gnarled body is juxtaposed with close-ups of Catwoman’s face in the rain, eyes widening as she realizes the truth in the villain’s words. But every time the camera pulls back, March falls into his typically cheescakey style that just doesn’t fit with what Tynion is doing. The body language and sometimes the choice of shot to accommodate March’s posing just doesn’t work to communicate horror or terror. He does some good work with the action sequences though. They are pretty tightly communicated and have a choreography that really flows through the pages.

Popping over to the Batman side of the narrative, Tynion pulls out a familiar trick - Batman’s got a new gadget, thanks to Lucius Fox. It’s a clever way to get a Batmobile on the page quickly, but it feels like it’s creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist and spending the page count on something that only really serves a one-liner later in the issue. Meanwhile, neither the Penguin nor Deathstroke - heavy hitters in their own right - feel like a threat, while the new characters that Tynion has introduced don’t feel like they have real narrative weight. It feels like an odd point in the arc to be treading water even as a big death does occur. The Designer is a cipher at this point, looming over the narrative but not really giving us a great understanding of what he wants besides Bruce Wayne or why he wants him.

This run feels like less than the sum of its parts, and it seems more like Tynion is just keeping the seat warm until DC is ready to announce a new writer rather than telling a story that he is dying to tell. March’s art works in stops and starts here, but Catwoman’s new costume really allows the artist to lean into some bad habits. Tynion is taking his time building up the Designer as a threat for Batman, but at this juncture, there’s been nothing compelling communicated about him, further solidifying the feeling that this arc is lacking a certain punch. While Tom King’s run may have leaned heavily into metaphor, it doesn’t seem like Tynion has quite found his voice with this run yet, and the result is an adventure that feels like a boilerplate approach rather an essential one.

Credit: DC

Justice League #40
Written by Robert Venditti
Art by Doug Mahnke, Richard Friend and David Baron
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Thanks to inevitable creative team shifting, it almost feels like we’re in the Palate Cleanser era of DC - after big, ambitious runs like Scott Snyder’s tenure on Justice League, writer Robert Venditti and artist Doug Mahnke deliver a new storyline that is technically very proficient, but plays it so safe as to almost read as antiseptic. That might sound like me damning this new run with faint praise, but that’s not the intention - going back to basics feels like a tactical move before another brand-shaking new direction, but for the here and now, Justice League is content with staying in its lane, rather than establishing a bold new era.

What works in Venditti’s story is that because he’s stripped the cast down to the barest minimum, we’re able to get some invigorating characterization between Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern. Granted, it does still feel like Venditti is still figuring out Superman and Wonder Woman, but given the villain of the arc, I expect Clark will get his day in the sun sooner rather than later. To his credit, though, Venditti already seeds in some nice soap operatics with the Flash’s powers on the fritz, and while the character selection seems a little wonky (why not have Wonder Woman, leader of the Justice League Dark, recruit a fellow magic user?), Batman’s head-to-head with Madame Xanadu is certainly the highlight of the book.

But what might be the most acquired taste of this book is the slow burn pacing that Venditti is bringing to the story. In certain ways, that’s a welcome departure from the previous 39 issues of this series, which was so packed to the gills with ideas and high concepts that it oftentimes overshadowed the very superheroes it was supposed to be showcasing - but even just focusing on the League’s core quintet, it almost feels like this story is pulling its punches. Sure, there’s a couple of perfunctory superhero misunderstandings that turn into fights, but the threat of an army led by the Eradicator, for example, is presented almost like an afterthought. For a story that’s titled “Impact,” everything still feels pretty low-stakes.

Yet I think that listless quality might also come from the art. Before you get it twisted, I’m not saying Doug Mahnke is doing a bad job here - that’s not the case whatsoever. To be honest, saying Mahnke does anything besides draw the hell out of the Justice League would be wrong. The man has earned every bit of his considerable acclaim, but seeing him go home again to Justice League - a book that helped solidify his career almost 20 years ago - might be the reason why this feels like we’re tapping the same well here. Unlike, say, Howard Porter returning to the pages of The Flash, Mahnke’s dependable style seems to have been frozen in amber - he delivers some fun team splash images, and leans into the intensity of heat vision blasts or magic tentacles, but it also feels like imagery we’ve already seen him do before. That said, I do think Mahnke’s given a little bit of extra visual drag from inker Richard Friend’s dry rendering, not to mention David Baron’s sunny color work that drains any tension from the mix.

When you’re working on a comic with as much history as Justice League, there’s the general shape and structure that maximizes a title’s core qualities - and that’s something that Venditti and Mahnke deliver admirably here. But they don’t grow on that core shape, meaning that their individual voices as storytellers gets lost. Having to follow up a writer as big as Scott Snyder is no easy task, but Venditti and Mahnke feel like they’re not even making the attempt. The result is a Justice League story that is certainly solid and decently entertaining, but also one that will likely be disposable and forgettable against the rest of DC’s week-to-week output.

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