Best Shots Advance Reviews: BATMAN, PUNK ROCK JESUS, More

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for tomorrow's reviews, today? Then let's kick off today's Best Shots column, which has a ton of this week's big releases! So let's let Lan start us off with the big kahuna from DC Comics, the end of "The Court of Owls" storyline in Batman...


Batman #11

Written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV

Art by Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion, Rafael Albuquerque, Dave McCaig and FCO Plascencia

Lettering by Richard Starkings, Jimmy Betancourt, and Dezi Sienty

Published by DC Comics

Review by Lan Pitts

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

This is it. This is Rocky and Ivan Drago. He-Man and Skeletor. Cain and Abel. Batman #11 gives us the showdown that has been escalating for some time now. Does Batman prevail? Will Lincoln March live on to fight another day to haunt Bruce? Scott Snyder and the rest of Team Batman give us quite the battle, but nothing is ever black and white in Gotham City.

Jumping in right immediately from the last panel of the previous issue, Batman and his so-called brother duke it out all across Gotham with Lincoln getting the upper hand for the majority of the fight. When Bruce finally gets some hits in, he makes sure they count and the two cause some serious collateral damage to the city.

I think given the ending that Snyder has presented is the best route to have gone. Nothing is definite and gives Bruce a mystery he can't solve. The fact that Snyder also makes clear is how nobody owns Gotham is a poignant lesson. Lincoln has some great dialogue here as he's the main voice of the issue. His taunts to Bruce really show his mental instability and given time, will be a fine addition to the already legendary Batman rogues gallery. I do think that Bruce's ending monologue is a tad cliche at the end, and could have been punched up a bit. However, it is definitely an exclamation point for the end of this arc.

The back-up feature continuing Jarvis Pennyworth's story has more emotional weight, especially with Alfred and Bruce at the end. Alfred is more than the butler, or the confidant; he's the voice of reason. Both Bruce and Alfred lost somebody dear to them because of the Court, but where Bruce is determined to want to solve the mystery of Lincoln's heritage and put an end to the ambiguity, Alfred insists that they leave things at rest. This makes sense, and it adds to the whole overall lesson that Gotham is not just a city, but a force of its own.

You have great art teams on this. What can be said about Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion, and FCO that hasn't been said over and over. They are just dynamite, and Capullo really has established himself as one of DC's top artists and shown a whole new generation why he's a superstar. He's definitely won me over and I'll be on the lookout for whatever he puts out in the future. The best thing about this art team, that even with the more weaker dialogue, the scenes are still elevated to greater levels because the visuals are just that strong.

Over at the back-up, the mainstay art team of Albuquerque and McCaig literally burn the roof off the place and handle both the intense moments and more subtle ones with ease and panache, you'd easily would want a Bat-book with just them.

Batman #11 gives its readers the finale to something nobody was really expecting: a year long arc that establishes not only a new villain, but a new premise about Gotham City. Bruce has been pushed to the edge and he still fights another day. It's a strong book and one certainly labeled a can't miss one to read. This might be the finale to "The Court of Owls," but it's not an end. Kudos, Team Batman. Kudos.


Punk Rock Jesus #1

Written and Illustrated by Sean Murphy

Lettering by Todd Klein

Published by Vertigo

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Even with its title character barely appearing in the first issue, Punk Rock Jesus more than makes up for it in style, voice and swagger. Artist Sean Murphy pulls double-duty writing for this subversive spectacle, combining moodily drawn characters with over-the-top cultural critique.

In other words, this book is like a precocious teenager: it's somehow both preternaturally secure with its premise, but also desperate to grab your attention with its antics. Hey, there are far worse ways to put together a comic.

In his first issue, Murphy spends much of his time setting up this funhouse freaky future world, featuring clones, reality TV shows and a taciturn former IRA terrorist, all combining to create a new show about a newborn clone of Christ. There's not exactly a lot of room for nuance with this, but if you picked up a book with this title looking for nuance, you might be barking up the wrong tree.

Yet Murphy's premise stands strong, spinning together a nice skewering of America's worship of celebrity, particularly as mutated through the reality TV paradigm. Murphy's great strength as a plotter is that he throws some nice curveballs here, as a mixed-up world eagerly awaits the clone of Jesus Christ himself — even if some of the action beats are big just for the sake of being too big, by the end of the first issue, you're intrigued enough by all the twists and turns that you're definitely on-board for Issue #2.

The art, of course, is what's really stunning here. A splash page of Thomas, the aforementioned IRA killer, is practically posterworthy, with this tough guy striding a motorcycle as he's dwarfed by a seedy, techno-infused metropolis. His characters are also particularly expressive, allowing his somewhat talky script still flow well visually. Not only that, but because his characters look so good, you might overlook the occasional flatness in characterization — their faces and designs say more about them than their words.

Presentation-wise, it's kind of a shame that the book wasn't in color, only for the sake of giving Murphy's sharp pencils some more energy and depth. Of course, with the paper stock being Vertigo's traditional glossless material, even the whites of this book don't quite pop off the page. The result of this is that occasionally Murphy's inks can become overwhelming, without a strong opposite to offset it.

The fearlessness of Punk Rock Jesus is what grabs me the most, the sheer lack of disregard for what's "commercial" that Murphy and company exude in exchange for an earnest attempt at grabbing your attention, to strut its own stuff... but in the secret hope that you're still watching. Well, you win this round, Punk Rock Jesus, just on style points alone. You've got yourself a disciple.


Blacksad: A Silent Hell

Written by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido

Art by Juanjo Guarnido

Translation by Katie LaBarbera and Bart Beaty

Letters by Tom Orzechowski and Lois Buhalis

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Jazz can produce some crazy cats, but in this anthropomorphized New Orleans of the 1950s, it’s a dog that’s the focus of private eye Blacksad’s investigation.  When Blacksad is brought in by a wealthy jazz producer of dubious morals to find a former pianist who knows more than he should, the case takes more turns than a set of band solos, as Blacksad finds that’s nothing is easy in the Big Easy in this amazing new entry in the Blacksad series of graphic novels.

Several years ago, I found a translation of the first Blacksad book and was blown away with the quality of the story and the illustrations. Canales and Guarnido had written a true noir story in way I don’t think I’d seen in a comic book before, and this new book shows the pair’s storytelling has only gotten better in this fourth story featuring the feline detective.

Played out over one night and with corresponding flashbacks, Blacksad and his friend Weekly search desperately for Sebastian Fletcher, a missing musician, running through everything from record stores to houses of ill-repute in order to find him before the need for self-destruction takes him one last time.

Over the course of this quest, they expose the seedy underbelly of the New Orleans jazz scene, commenting silently on the exploitation of the real people Fletcher and his friends are based on. You don’t have to know much jazz history to appreciate this, but it definitely adds another layer. The plot builds as Blacksad works his way through the secrets and lies that his client has staked his life on, leaving the detective trying to plug holes in a leaky dyke that will inevitably explode no matter what he does.

As with the other Blacksad story I read, Canales has a very solid grasp on what makes noir work. It’s not just creating a morally ambiguous hero and then setting him adrift in a world of bad people. You need to make the decisions faced by the hero a case of picking the lesser of multiple evils while fighting against multiple agendas, with deceit and witty dialogue at every turn. Blacksad follows that formula perfectly, with the only problem being that it’s very non-linear, making it just a bit hard to follow the action from time to time.

Using a combination of sketches, treatments, watercolors and some digital manipulations, artist Juanjo Guarnido creates a world for Blacksad to inhabit that is both dark and garish, depending on the needs of the story. Comics where animals take on human form fail badly if the artist cannot make their representations convincing. That’s not a problem here, as Guarnido deftly selects just the right animal for each part, whether it’s a white billy goat to be the music producer, a hippo as the plot’s Heavy, or even a leopardess to highlight a strip club.

Despite the limitations of retaining their animal aspects, Guarnido’s characters are every bit as expressive as their human counterparts may have been, able to laugh and cry and leer, depending on what is going on in the story.

His talent for detail extends to the backgrounds, which really do feel like the New Orleans of the 1950s. We see everything from the bright parades to the darkness of the docks, with seedy jazz clubs and street corners thrown in for good measure. Perhaps the best example of the detailing occurs at the fake witch’s house, with Guarnido showing totems and potions and books and all manner of things almost claustrophobically strewn together, with the completely out of place producer right in the middle of it all.

After the main story, Guarnido explains in detail how he was able to make the art look so outstanding. I am not an artist nor do such things usually interest me, but his engaging style and multiple examples kept me reading and really did help me get a better appreciation for the work that goes into making a book so uniquely created as Blacksad.

Don’t let the use of animal characters fool you — Blacksad A Silent Hell is one of the best noir comics you’ll read all year, worthy of being placed on your shelf next to Fatale and other crime comic favorites.


Conan the Barbarian #6

Written by Brian Wood

Art by James Harren and Dave Stewart

Letters by Richard Starkings and Comicraft

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It seems Conan will do anything for love, but doing that for a woman who’s just as in love with blood and treasure as she is with him could be a different story entirely. The Barbarian acts like a fool in love, but is starting to have second thoughts about his new life in the closing chapter of the excellent three-part “Argos Deception.”

Brian Wood really shows off his talents as a storyteller here as he manages to finish off the main plot (Belit’s raid on the city) while also giving Conan time to free himself and start to think hard about his life decisions. Yes, Conan has been a thief but he has not killed merely to get treasure, something that is second nature to Belit and her crew. It’s a distasteful idea for a character that follows a code that relies on honor. I love that Wood takes Conan down this road, planting seeds of doubt that can either be dispatched or fanned into flames, depending on which direction Wood goes next.

Best of all, rather than have this be an uncharacteristic reflective moment, the whole thing plays out while Conan fights for his life.

Conan’s dilemma is a great overall focal point yet the key storytelling moment once again belongs to Belit. On first blush, it looks like Wood has reduced her to damsel in distress status, but if that’s the impression you get, read over that scene again. Look carefully at her posture. Examine her reaction to what is happening. Think back on how she deceived the head guard in the last issue. Do you really believe she’s in danger — or does she know that Conan must feel like she needs him in order to stay on amid the morally dubious pirates? I know my answer to that question, and even if I’m off-base, the fact that what could easily be just another bloody romping action title has layers like this really impresses me.

There’s a lot to like about Conan the Barbarian #6 in terms of the script, but a lot of the credit needs to go to James Harren for making his art rise to the level of Wood’s writing. Every time that Wood needs Harren to be brutal, he delivers in spades. Conan is shown using his powerful muscles to not only kill, but absolutely slice and dice his opponents this time around.

To rattle off a short body count: he beheads at least four people and a horse, impales another guard, throws his sword through a captor’s neck, and, in perhaps the most dramatic moment, effectively cuts a person in two while saving Belit. It’s a level of savagery that gives even the Barbarian pause, but at no time do the attacks blend in the reader’s mind, thanks to Harren’s vivid and varied methods of depicting the carnage. Nor does the violence feel forced — it’s Conan venting his frustrations and, as he puts it, showing them he can be every bit the barbarian they make him out to be.

The change in Harren’s art from Issue #4 to these past two issues is simply amazing. He’s able to invoke raw emotion from the reader with violent fights that take advantage of varied camera angles but also switch to showing the human elements of Conan and Belit’s actions. The splash page of the city on fire really hits home the idea that these are people who for the most part did Conan no wrong, just as his former friends that Belit ruthlessly murdered did her no wrong.

There’s real terror in the eyes of those Conan attacks, and his movements in this issue almost look like they are rendered in 3D, especially when he finds the tent where Belit is being held. Harren draws the Conan I picture when I read the prose stories, and I hope he’s given another arc or miniseries to work on in the near future.

Layered in both story and art, Conan the Barbarian #6 is everything you could ask from a comic featuring Robert E. Howard’s signature character. There’s action, violence, and even romance in the pulp tradition, but, like Howard’s original, so much more than that to offer the reader. This is a must-read comic right now, and looks like it it’s only going to keep getting better.


Damsels #1

Written by Leah Moore and John Reppion

Art by Aneke

Published by Dynamite Entertainment

Review by Pierce Lydon

'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Damsels, out in September, finds Leah Moore and John Reppion trying to put their own spin on the reinvented fairy tale genre, but inconsistent pacing results in a dizzying comic book experience.

Moore and Reppion open the book with a fairy’s escape from her human captors and immediately it sets the tone for the issue. This is a world with magic and fairy tale princesses but it’s not the one you’re used to. Tinkerbell has some seriously sharp teeth.

This issue serves as an introduction to the cast more than anything else. Most of the focus is on one red-haired, unnamed raggamuffin who is dressed in slightly more modern clothing and bears an uncanny resemblance to Rapunzel. This makes sense, considering that all of the other introductions we get to the damsels are relatively plain.

Moore and Reppion try to insert some drama as the book goes on, but the narrative never stays in one place long enough to properly build any excitement. The plot is bland — the final action sequences run parallel to each other and Moore and Reppion choose to flit back and forth from each one on a page by page basis, stripping the finale of any real impact.

That said, the team does succeed in presenting a reimagining of the fairy tales world we’ve come to expect with a penchant for the dark and twisted. What stands out most is their interpretation of The Little Mermaid. She isn’t the adorable, fork-collecting loner from the Disney movie. The creative team instead focuses on how a mermaid might have to actually look to survive, and the results are a satisfyingly disturbing.

Artist Aneke really drives home the fairy tale setting. Castles are grand in scale. Peasants look appropriately disheveled. Fairies and ogres have unique looks and quality renderings. Some of the recurring human characters suffer from inconsistent expressions but overall, Aneke does a solid job.

The biggest art problems, however, come in the form of some of the panel layouts and storytelling decisions. Clearly, some of this is out of the artist’s hands but some pages overuse white space in a failed attempt to be dynamic and some panels feature characters who are supposed to be talking but don’t have heads.

Damsels will immediately be compared to Fables and Fairest because of its setting and characters but its definitely got a different feel to it. Unfortunately, this first issue is not going to be enough to hook most people in.

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