Sunday, January 8, 2012

Weekly Crisis Comic Book Reviews for 01/04/12

Welcome to the latest edition of the Weekly Crisis Comic Book Reviews!  As the case often is, there were a number of quality books that dropped this week.  This time around, I'll be putting the spotlight on Batwing #5, Punisher #7, and X-23 #20, so hit the jump to see how they were!

Written by Judd Winick
Art by Ben Oliver

Oh man, this issue is brutal.  Not in a "Catwoman #1" way (which is, of course, Winick's other title presently), but in a "child soldiers being forced to burn a man alive" way, which is exactly how Batwing #5 opens.

The child soldiers in question are David and Isaac Zavimbe, the current Batwing and his presumed-dead brother respectively.  And this sequence appears in the context of one of David's weekly post-traumatic stress disorder influenced nightmares, where he unwillingly remembers different examples of the horrors that he wrought in his previous life.  It also acts a s a perfect illustration of David's motivations to be Batwing and to fight for justice the way he does.

This title has done an excellent job of refusing to waste time with superfluous details, offering only what the reader needs to understand what's going on and why, and it's always done in a clear and concise manner.

While the issue opens with a small, yet powerful, addition to Batwing's origin, it is primarily concerned with Josiah Kone, the former techguy for Africa's original superhero group The Kingdom, reopening their headquarters as a museum for the general public.  Of course, with Batwing's nemesis Massacre still at large and still in the process of systematically murdering all the former members of The Kingdom, Batwing and Batman are on hand to make sure nothing goes wrong.

Those few pages before things (inevitably) go wrong are alright.  Bruce Wayne's conversation with Josiah about The Kingdom's importance and Josiah's reference to Batman Inc. were well done, but David's conversation with fellow police officer Kia reads quite awkwardly.  I mean, it's supposed to be awkward, showing how David seems to have difficulties talking to women (or at least to Kia), but it doesn't feel natural.  A bit more time spent on editing this scene probably could have been of use.

However, once things do hit the fan, the story really gets moving.  In a big way.  Winick's idea of having multiple people dressed as Massacre is well-executed, although a lot of that praise should definitely be directed towards Ben Oliver.  As always, he does a great job throughout the issue, putting his photorealistic, gritty style to great use.  The fight scenes are quite brutal (there's that word again), but I was even more impressed with the way Oliver portrayed the issue's climax.  It's perhaps a simple thing, but his choices of imagery were quite powerful and really raised the moment's impact.

Verdict - Buy It.  There's a lot of good Batbooks coming out right now (which I suppose only makes sense when DC is publishing a million or so each month), so you could be forgiven if Batwing has slipped under your radar.  Nevertheless, Winick and Oliver are telling an engaging story in the pages of each and every issue, so if you've been looking for something new to read, I'd urge you to give this title a chance.

Written by Greg Rucka
Art by Michael Lark

Boy is my face red.  I was a tad dismissive of this issue in my Previews earlier in the week, seeing as the solicitation gave the impression that it would be completely unrelated to the ongoing storyline.  I suppose it's just another example of the increasing uselessness of solicitations nowadays, as Punisher #7 picks up right where things left off in the previous issue - just not quite where I was expecting it to.

Instead of following up on the Punisher and Rachel Cole-Alves' meeting amongst the murdered Exchange members in upstate New York, Greg Rucka gives me the comic book that I didn't even know I was waiting for.  Indeed, Rucka switches the focus to the supporting cast, delivering an issue featuring Oscar "Ozzy" Clemons and Walter Bolt, the two police detectives who have been working the Cole-Alves wedding murders since the first issue, talking and driving out to the scene of the crime.  So instead of featuring the vigilante of the city, we get an issue about the police officers whose work is impacted by their actions.  Sounding a little familiar?  If so, that's because this is exactly what Rucka did with Ed Brubaker during their time on Gotham Central.  And who was drawing that series?  A penciller by the name of Michael Lark, you say?

Yeah, a little embarrassed that I didn't realize sooner, but Punisher #7 is as close to a spiritual successor of Gotham Central as I think we're going to be getting any time soon.  And just like that critically acclaimed series, this issue is some of the best comics you're going to find, making for a great look into how superheroes affect the lives of everyday men and women.

At its core, this issue is really just a bunch of talking heads, as Ozzy and Walter drive towards the scene of the crime - what little action that does take place in the issue is in the form of one character telling a story to the other - and I wouldn't want it any other way.  Rucka's character work is always top notch, and this issue is no exception.  The dialogue is crisp, concise, and revelatory as all get out.  While the detectives (especially Ozzy) can sometimes be a little curt, they still manage to say an awful lot.  This issue is a great look into who these characters are and where their relationship stand.  Ozzy has a particularly stunning revelation towards the end of the issue that is played off like no big deal, but it should make the issues to come real interesting.

I've already spent a good chunk of time praising Rucka and Lark's previous efforts, but this issue shows that the two can still make beautiful comics together.  While Rucka is nailing all the chatter, it's Lark's lines (and Stefano Gaudiano's inks - perhaps not coincidentally, another alumnus of the excellent Gotham Central series) that sells everything.  Each and every panel is a work of art, with the characters' body language and expressions illustrating all of the meaning behind their words.  Take out the dialogue, and you'd have no difficulty understanding how the conversation develops.  Unsurprisingly for a guy who worked on a police procedural book, Lark has quite the eye for crime scenes, depicting them in visceral detail throughout the issue.  I've been digging Marco Checcetto's work with Rucka, but if they're needing another fill-in down the line, I hope they call in Lark again.

Verdict - Must Read.  I came into this book with the absolute wrong expectations, and it blew me away nonetheless.  It may be the first week of January, but I'm prepared to call this a very early contender for issue of the year.  Even if you aren't following this series, you should give this issue a look.  It'll be well worth you while.

X-23 #20
Written by Marjorie Liu
Art by Phil Noto

Apparently I'm making minor mistakes left and right this week.  I was under the impression that this was the last issue of X-23, but I've since realized that we're getting one more before it's all said and done (opening the book and seeing that the storyline was called "Girls' Night Out - Part 1" was a pretty strong hint...).  I'm certainly happy to see that  there's a bit more X-action coming down the pipeline, because even though I was woefully tardy to the X-23 party (jumping on with issue #17), I've been enjoying it quite thoroughly.

This issue was the first time that I felt like being a recent arrival was a detriment to my reading experience, but it was by no means a dealbreaker.  I simply felt a little lost at times, because there's no explicit explanation of what's going on.  Laura needs to decide what she's going to do, but it's not immediately evident what that choices involves.  I eventually read the "Previously..." section, where it explained that Laura was trying to choose whether to side with Cyclops or Wolverine's factions.  It was rather obvious in retrospect, but since I don't actually read any other X-book at present, my mind didn't pick up on it right away.  I would have preferred it if I could have gleaned that fact from the comic itself, but what are you going to do?

That qualm aside, this issue was pretty fun.  The opening game of two on two football between Laura and Jubilee and Gambit and Iceman was a nice moment of levity and a good excuse to work in the characters that have been relevant to Laura over the course of the series.  I also really liked the opening with Laura glowering and declaring that one should "Get out of my way or die", implying a far more serious scene than it ended up being.  Nice touch.

From there, the issue moves on to Jubilee and Laura's aforementioned girls' night out, where the two catch up and talk about Laura's impending decision.  This was the focus of the issue, and I felt it read quite well.  I haven't seen these characters interact before, but their rapport was evident and felt real.  Marjorie Liu did a great job of giving readers the information they needed while providing an engaging conversation between two friends.

My biggest difficulty with X-23 #20 is that I really missed having Sana Takeda on art.  Phil Noto was a capable replacement, but it really wasn't the same.  Takeda's painterly style seemed particularly attuned to Laura's world and adventures, and while Noto's work has a nice looseness to it that suited the issue's atmosphere, it just wasn't the same.  His colour work sometimes felt a little overwhelming, especially when there was one pervading colour that seemed to drown out the rest of the page.  But my main issue is that his expression work felt repetitive, leaving each character with only one demeanour for the entire comic.  I understand that Laura has had a rough time, but surely her face can maintain expressions other than dogged determination, right?  Sure, it's appropriate often enough, but it comes off as a bit strange when she's being emotionally open or enjoying herself.  But I digress.

Verdict - Check It.  I'm still really enjoying what little time we have left with X-23, but I must admit that, while this is a good issue, it does suffer from minor missteps at various points along the way.  It also probably would have been a tad more exciting if Marvel hadn't already told us a million times that Laura is going to join the Avengers Academy, thus rendering this issue's dilemma as entirely moot.  Kind of takes some of the mystery out of things.

I'm seriously still kind of reeling from the realization that Punisher #7 was pretty much Marvel's version of Gotham Central.  That series is possibly my favourite thing that DC has ever put out, so it was kind of the best surprise to have a kind of reunion with it this week.  Were any of you big fans of Gotham Central?  Would you rank it among DC's best or are there other series that you believe to be more deserving of that title?

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Steve said...

I absolutely agree with your praise of Gotham Central. That book featured an excellent premise executed perfectly. Between that and his run on Daredevil, I'll but pretty much anything with Michael Lark's name on it. When I saw he'd be penciling this issue, I knew I'd have to pick it up, and it didn't disappoint. I don't know if I'd give it 'potential book of the year praise,' but it was definitely my favorite issue of Rucka's Punisher series so far.

On the other hand, I totally disagree with your thoughts on X-23. I don't care for Sana Takeda's art and I love Phil Noto. To each his own, of course.

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