Best Shots Reviews: X-MEN/FANTASTIC FOUR #3, BATMAN: CURSE OF WHITE KNIGHT #8, JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK #21

JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK #21
Credit: Clayton Crain (DC)
Credit: Marvel Comics

X-Men/Fantastic Four #3
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson, Ransom Getty, Laura Martin, Andrew Crossley and Peter Pantazis
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

All roads lead to Doom Island in X-Men/Fantastic Four #3. Though servicably written by Chip Zdarsky and given a keen classic comic books look and feel by a stocked art team lead by the Dodsons, X-Men/Fantastic Four #3 finds the series continuing to mark time until Franklin’s ultimate decision between the world of his super-family and the new nation of Krakoa.

Breaking off their pursuit of the FF, the X-Men themselves discover Doom Island, and the previously unknown contingent of Latverian mutants. From their position, the X-Men assume that the mutants are there against their will, but even within the Quiet Council there is dissent. Cyclops wants to help the Latverians, but Charles and Erik are still too concerned with the fate of Franklin’s Omega-level powers, stoking the battle of the paternal figures between Doom and Reed Richards. It is an interesting ideological and moral divide, but the issue is too busy laying it all out instead of trying to deal with it. Even with the charm of Zdarsky’s characterization and the old-school spinner-rack look of the issue, this third issue doesn’t do much to live up to the promise of the debut.

If you thought the narrative table of X-Men/Fantastic Four was set in the previous installments, #3 quickly disabuses you of that notion. Picking up mid-chase after the Fantastic Four’s infiltration of Krakoa, Zdarsky admirably drops us into the middle of the action. It gives the opening a real charge, one he fans further with his truly great takes on Scott Summers and Emma Frost.

But once both factions are gathered together on Doom Island - and then joined by even more characters like Franklin, Val, and Kate Pryde - X-Men/Fantastic Four #3 really starts to drag, mainly because it's too busy telling and not showing. Zdarsky introduces a lot of very fun political elements into the issue, but never once follows through on them - for example, Magneto explicitly warns that the Richards family has essentially declared war on Krakoa by crossing their border in malice. It is a powerful character moment, signaling another tense standoff between the Four and the House of X… but just as soon as it’s mentioned, it is abandoned, as the issue quickly cuts away.

Yet another example is a scene between Charles Xavier and Doctor Doom. Zdarsky positions the two heads of state in opposition, bluntly stating that Doom has rejected Xavier’s offer, even as he recognizes Krakoa as a state - one of the first major mentions of Doom and Latveria’s position on the mutant nation. But again, before the two can fully jockey with the implications of that, the issue just drops the thread and moves on. There is also the matter of the powers-centered “technobabble” the issue has to burn through. Though fans of Zdarsky’s Marvel 2-in-One will be happy to see the thread of “Godpower” continued, this narrative track-laying just exacerbates how thin and plot heavy the series has felt over all.

It is all really frustrating, made even more so by the occasional sparks of life Zdarsky delivers with the characters. Franklin, once again, seems to be the only person acting rationally, but Zdarsky delivers a few fun moments with the whole cast at least once. His Doom especially gets a few fun standout moments in this issue, in particular in how he keeps zinging Reed as a father and scientist.

That said, X-Men/Fantastic Four also continues to look great thanks to a game art team led by Terry and Rachel Dodson. This issue is a touch more interior-heavy than the previous issues, which makes the scope of the whole experience seem cramped. But when it comes to character, the art team really shines. The opening set piece is the best possible example. Aided by the extra inking efforts of Ransom Getty and coloring support from Laura Martin, Andrew Crossley, and Peter Pantazis, the creative team starts off the issue with a great chase, peppered with fun interiors of the new Blackbird and this version of the Fantasti-Car piloted by expressive character models. Scott and Emma in particular receive more fun and flirty visual energy as Scott moves upward toward the cockpit of the Blackbird.

Much like the script however, the art starts to drag once the cast assembles on Doom Island. Though everyone still looks great, with the Dodsons leaning fully into the strong posing and dramatic costumes of each, they aren’t given too terribly much to do until the final cliffhanger. There is a quick jolt of action between Wolverine and a few Doombots, but much of X-Men/Fantastic Four #3 is devoted to exposition, and that has never been the Dodsons’ strong suit.

I have been really wanting to fully enjoy X-Men/Fantastic Four, but #3 makes it really difficult to fully get behind. Frustratingly vague and meandering, X-Men/Fantastic Four #3 might not be the blockbuster crossover that "Dawn of X" fans or Marvel wanted.

Credit: DC

Batman: Curse of the White Knight #8
Written by Sean Murphy
Art by Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth
Lettering by AndWorld Designs
Published by DC/Black Label
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

There’s a lot of talk about identity in Batman: Curse of the White Knight - about Bruce Wayne’s heritage, his history, his role as Gotham’s Dark Knight. But as Sean Murphy’s sophomore maxiseries comes to a close, you can’t help but sense a little bit of uncertainty as to what this book was meant to be.

Is it an exquisitely drawn action book featuring DC’s most popular character? Absolutely - and it’s a smashing success in that regard. But as far as achieving any particular narrative ends - whether as a follow-up to Murphy’s Joker-centric opening series, an homage to Jean-Paul Valley’s arc in "Knightfall," or even as a conclusion to Bruce Wayne’s own downward spiral as a leader - and the results are a bit more hazy. Ultimately, this explosive finale is actually a bit more boilerplate than you might expect, but it still coasts across the finish line smoothly thanks to Murphy’s undeniably excellent visuals.

Part of what makes Curse of the White Knight feel like such an uneven read is that while it’s Batman’s name on the cover, the initial series was really all about Jack Napier - namely his dynamic with Batman, Harley Quinn, the city of Gotham, and his own homicidal alter ego as the Joker. But with this sophomore arc, the Clown Prince of Crime has always been playing second fiddle - there’s no last twist from beyond the grave, so the last quarter of this series has just had the Joker killed in action.

The problem is, Murphy’s opening series was all about subversion - and as far as villains go, Murphy plays Azrael fairly straight. Given that the White Knight series was all about interrogating the necessity of Batman, this final head-to-head - as bombastic as it might be - feels all about cementing the status quo. Murphy rushes through so much of the emotional beats to get to the fisticuffs that if it didn’t look so damn good, you’d be quick to spot how haphazard it sometimes feels - beats like Dick Grayson tearfully begging his mentor not to kill or Azrael deciding to forgo his technology to engage in a sword fight are fun bits on paper, but they aren’t sufficiently built up to be justified. Indeed, even the conclusion of Bruce and Azrael’s battle feels like he’s undercutting his own argument - Batman isn’t a killer because he struck with a killing blow and then administered first aid?

But like I said - that’s if it didn’t look so damn good. It perhaps feels repetitive to say this, but while Murphy’s scripting can be a little hit or miss (although it has noticeably improved in terms of sheer dialogue), his artwork feels unimpeachable. You can sense the enthusiasm he brings to every page, whether it’s car chases with the Batmobile or Batman and Azrael’s climactic sword fight. This is the kind of school of thinking that’s not throwing in everything and the kitchen sink - it’s throwing in everything you in particular think is cool, which is absolutely a valid way to make comic books. To be honest, it’s that kind of thinking that got us Azrael in the first place, and Murphy draws the ever-loving hell out of the Azbat armor, to the point where I wish we had seen that suit four issues ago - his angular style is a great fit for that serrated kind of armor, and it provides a nice counterpoint with the more streamlined Batman.

While I do think Murphy rushes past a lot of his emotional beats to the point that they only feel like taps rather than haymakers, the core audience for Batman: Curse of the White Knight will likely vibe much more with his deeply kinetic art style. Do I think that this conclusion necessarily hits all the points that a good sequel does? Not quite - and a series less masterfully drawn would likely get hit a lot harder as a result. But for Curse of the White Knight, the outstanding visuals helps stick the landing where its own shaky narrative might not.

Credit: DC

Justice League Dark #21
Written by Ram V and James Tynion IV
Art by Alvaro Martinez Bueno, Raul Fernandez and June Chung
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

For there only being a single word difference between the most recognizable DC team book and Justice League Dark, it says a lot about the quality and consistency of this series that it’s had such an immediately understood and riveting identity. This most recent arc has seen the storytelling reins being transitioned from James Tynion IV to Ram V, a writer whose work on Paradiso and These Savage Shores in particular hints that Justice League Dark could be experiencing an injection of even more interesting ideas. While this issue is marred slightly by its somewhat inconsistent need to move the plot into place for the next issue and some less-than-appealing character art, there is a wealth of visual and narrative intrigue to make this another solid book for the title.

The plot picks up on the two divergent threads from last month, with the book opening on Constantine and Zatanna’s search for Abigail Arcane leading them to the abandoned Lewton Reformatory in Virginia. The name is a reference to legendary horror producer Val Lewton - Lewton’s work was often littered with inescapable ancestral supernatural ties, and having the investigation of this condemned building culminate in the reveal of Abigail’s uncle Anton Arcane feels apt. The building’s rot being manifested as growth on a massive, somewhat anatomically accurate heart is a striking idea as well, and one which Ram V ties deftly to the Wonder Woman and Animal Man plot thread in the book.

As the plant plague spreads and infects more people in the city, including part of Animal Man’s own face, the two realize their efforts at containment might not work as well as they had hoped, and Animal Man devises a strategy. As Wonder Woman buys him time in a stellar sequence, Animal Man possesses the mind and body of a flatworm in his gut. This is where it becomes clear that the impressively drawn gothadelics of the rotted heart in the Constantine and Zatanna storyline isn’t just incidental, or there for the sake of giving readers something cool to look at - it mirrors Animal Man’s possession of something microbial, both becoming small things fighting biological corruption of a larger system. It’s a really cool scene, but ultimately stops there. It will obviously be picked up on in later issues, but feels like a somewhat sloppy loose thread in this issue, and as such that plotline feels prematurely shortened.

Something many readers are likely experiencing now with a number of new books is that strange sense when something was 100% created before a significant event but reaches an audience after (or in this case, during) a global event. Certain elements take on a thematic weight that they otherwise wouldn’t. The infection scene, with Animal Man emphasizing the human element of the people whose bodies are betraying them, would have been a throwaway line as readers rush to get to the Constantine and Zatanna intrigue-laden gothic asylum, but instead, in late March 2020, it feels loaded in a way that it almost certainly was never intended to be. Something that would otherwise read as the Big Two-mandated mid-issue action scene instead feels like it is reacting to a current global pandemic. It isn’t, of course — we are the ones reacting to the pandemic, and these works really show themselves as cultural mirrors of not just when they are created, but when they are consumed. An otherwise forgettable portion of the comic becomes heavier when Animal Man says, “They’re people, Diana. People who woke up this morning trying to get to their jobs, schools, walk their dogs for God’s sake.”

Artistically, penciller Alvaro Martinez Bueno, inker Raul Fernandez, and colorist June Chung deliver mostly great art throughout Justice League Dark #21, with particular praise reserved for Chung who makes everything pertaining to the rot in the Reformatory and the swamp have an extra layer of dread to it. While some of the character’s bodies feel inconsistently drawn at times, the entire art team is locked in step for making the horror-tinted scenes memorable, and making Wonder Woman’s full page brawl down a staircase feel like the comic equivalent of the iconic corridor fight in Old Boy.

If the previous issue was a perfect time for new readers to jump into the series, Justice League Dark #21 gives readers plenty to mull over and appreciate. While the flaws in story and art consistency are there, overall the comic delivers far more positives than negatives, and above all succeeds in feeling unique among Big Two books. Between the intrigue-filled storytelling and the moody artwork, this is an arc you’re going to want to jump into.

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