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Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/27/23

Comic Books

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/27/23

Even more reviews of comics from Image, BOOM! Studios, DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse!

Welcome to another edition of Last Call Comics. Here, as we continually bolster AIPT’s weekly comics coverage, we catch any titles that might’ve fallen through the cracks. Or those books that we might not cover but still deserve a little spotlight. Either way, it’s a chance to explore more comics, generate some novel insights, and maybe add to everyone’s to-be-read pile.

Once more, happy New Comic Book Day to everyone.

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Batman / Catwoman: The Gotham War – Red Hood #1

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/27/23

Courtesy of DC Comics.

Red Hood and Catwoman are the same, right? I don’t mean in terms of experiences and the like, but rather their connection to Batman — they play the same or similar roles. Which is to say, they’re morally ambiguous (at least in comparison) and they perhaps represent the Dark Knight’s desire to “fix” people. (If you want to make the argument either need fixing, and aren’t already robust and compelling individuals in their own right.)

So, as Bat and Cat are pitted against each other in the burgeoning Gotham War, it only makes sense that Jason Todd/Red Hood would be involved. And what a bit of heft and oomph he does add to the event in this tie-in issue from writer Matthew Rosenberg, artist Nikola Čižmešija, and colorist Rex Lokus.

Without revealing too much, the story sees Red Hood courted by Catwoman to aid in her plan of “let’s train all the former henchmen of Gotham and hope we can control crime and it doesn’t violently explode in our collective faces.” Red Hood’s involvement, then, gets to the heart of some of the premises’ initial tension and uncertainty, and it adds a nice bit of depth to the event as it further forms and decides upon some of its larger thematic intentions.

Hood, especially, is a great choice given his mostly contentious relationship with Catwoman, his flexible moral leanings, and that he’s always been a great voice of dissent (and sometimes reason?) amid the ever-growing Bat Family. It’s the sort of tie-in where we see Red Hood with a new appreciation, and while it doesn’t exactly extend him morally, it’s a chance to let Todd emerge as a vital member of Gotham’s crime-fighting cabal and how he very much has his finger on the pulse of it all (even as he is basically obsessed with an old foe throughout). It’s a really top-notch appearance from Hood, and Rosenberg shows a deep appreciation and familiarity even as he poses new ideas and layers to this perpetually unsung member of the DCU.

Čižmešija and Lokus, meanwhile, take pains to avoid stepping on Rosenberg’s toes; they’re more interested in offering a kind of counter to a story that’s very much about world-building and furthering a very specific story arc. That gives them the freedom, then, to have a little fun, as they mix a slightly exaggerated, vaguely cartoonish style with that baseline grit. It’s like a really slaphappy noir, and there’s big, over-the-top moments where the grit is suspended momentarily. (Like when Red Hood goes punch drunk on a training henchman.) It never really diminishes the emotionality of this issue — rather, it feels like a way to stay true to something weirdly playful that lives in most Red Hood stories. It’s this charmingly frenetic and “dirty” energy that sets him apart from his cohorts (and even connects him to the jokey or uber dramatic tendencies with many a Catwoman story). It even makes him feel both somehow mysterious and a little scary when depicted in his crimefighting ensemble, and it’s a little wrinkle that makes the art a big part of the brevity without foregoing the much-needed edge.

I think if this issue accomplishes nothing else, it contrasts and compares Catwoman and Red Hood. We don’t so much learn something new about their dynamic, but rather it’s allowed to play out to service this story and see just how nuanced their back-and-forth has become over the years. It’s a relationship of overt, occasionally destructive honesty, and they share tendencies (big-time loners, perpetually ambiguous) as much as there’s real static (Catwoman may have changed, but Red Hood reminds us such things are more complicated). Either way, it’s a solid issue that checks all the boxes it needs to with endless style and joy — a big win for these tie-in titles.

Final Thought: A compelling little peek under the Hood.

Score: 7.5/10

Creed: The Next Round #4

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/27/23

Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

Reading Creed: The Next Round over the last three issues has been akin to a friendly sparring match. The book’s shown us how it can move as it laid the groundwork for a poignant tale about the Creed family (and the burgeoning “rivalry” between Amara Creed and Jamie Pierce). It landed some solid blows, but always in the name of showmanship. With the finale, though, the gloves come off and issue #4 pummels us with a series of huge emotional blows.

The book’s undisputed champ all along has been the art team — by employing different creators to handle different “sections,” it’s given this multifaceted book the robust identity needed to flourish. And issue #4 is certainly no different.

Paris Alleyne and Gab Contreras handled the Creed family brilliantly — the ending training montage, especially, felt like a massive moment in the book both thematically and in further exploring that unit’s defining tendencies. Contreras and Lea Caballero tackled “the competition,” and while it didn’t have as much time/space as the Creed stuff, we got even more about what made Pierce a great foil for Amara and a powerful fighter in her own right (and having this solid antagonist has done wonders). Finally, DJ Chavis and Wilton Santos put in even more work with the fight — it’s a subtle but profound demonstration of what the right choreography can do to feel thrilling while mirroring some of the book’s key themes and character interactions.

Of course, as visually impactful as this book was, it was the core narrative from LaToya Morgan and Jai Jamison that cemented #4 as the king of sharp body blows. Just when it seemed like there was too much to pack into one issue, they managed to balance a lot of the emotional stuff (including more emphasis on the subplot with the “lost” Creed brother, Alex) and the final fight — that proper flow kept the issue moving and still gave plenty of room for every side of this deeply intricate tale.

More than that, I love that the issue really gave time to the Creed family’s training and connection. It was the perfect vehicle to draw home some of the story’s bigger ideas, like how we rely on our loved ones and the motivational power of embracing one’s feelings. They’re slightly trite ideas, but then that’s sort of the point: this book is about taking your average sports story, injecting new thoughts and approaches, and showing us something more to the whole concept. It’s a sports story for a greater, more complex age, and one that speaks to some need in this day and age for connection, openness, and a dash of honesty (not to mention attractive people engaged in a little bit of overt drama). And the stuff with BASL continued to be a really important demonstration of that.

I won’t reveal the end (you may have already seen it coming), but I can say the book also leaves itself space for a sequel (or two?) down the line. And I for one am all for it. This series has been a proper spectacle, with big-time fights, emotional haymakers, and heart and aspirational vibes galore. I’ll follow the whole dang Creed anywhere as long as they keep fighting with such joy and humanity for every square inch of our hearts and minds.

Final Thought: Pardon the cliche, but this finale is an emotional TKO.

Score: 8.5/10

Newburn #11

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/27/23

Courtesy of Image Comics.

I’ve mentioned a few times already that this arc is all about evolution. Easton Newburn is facing some big decisions about the man he was or is and who he may have to become. It’s a story of man reaching a precipice, and he’s not getting weaker or more uncertain as he grows older but instead has proven himself to be more cunning and savage than ever before. That is the great source of emotional tension and uncertainty in this arc, and why it’s been so brilliant just two issues in.

Issue #11, then, really drives home this transformative era for Newburn. Writer Chip Zdarsky gave him perhaps his biggest challenge to date, an intricate little scheme involving a Yakuza liver transplant patient and possible rat that plays out like something from a noir-y A-Team. (More on the actual action later.)

Sure, it’s a marked shift from some of Newburn’s other “projects,” and it’s also a massive leap forward for the ex-cop. It’s a singular instance to show his pure genius for his specific work while pushing it to such new heights that you can’t help but feel a little shell-shocked. That’s sort of the glory of it all: Newburn’s cool as a cucumber, and it’s the reader who deals with the shock and awe of it all and what this says about our “hero.” Newburn, then, has become a proper kind of “villain” thus far: not because he’s already turned somehow (although this issue lays that groundwork and then some), but that he’s become the epicenter for all these increasingly unsettling ideas and levels of violence (physical and spiritual). He’s not so much toeing the moral line anymore, but he’s ready to backflip across it with ease. It’s forcing us into some important realizations, and we have no choice but to get dragged into some increasingly uncomfortable realizations.

I mentioned earlier that the issue revolves around some A-Team-level shenanigans. Artist Jacob Phillips’ art, which has always been a perfect fit for this book, stepped up in a big way for this intricate “caper.” This big action “scene” was especially layered in its approach and with heaps of moving parts, like a crowded, panicked airport and explosions in ambulances. And while those moments feel particularly vivid and robust in their impact, what really matters is they also remained deeply connected to this book’s identity. They’re not so much outliers or unexpected leaps forward in intensity and momentum but an evolutionary step for this book. In that way, it once again puts the onus on the reader to make sense of it all; the book remains as tight-knit and consistent as ever, but it’s our core understandings that have begun to crumble under our collective feet. This visuals manage to foster that sense in a really powerful way, and Phillips guides us through these massive set pieces that still feel wholly intimate and focused. It’s the other side of the coin to a story that’s all about pushing places and people forward in a way to make us consider big questions and organically reconsider the scope of this story.

This book spent most of its first arc trying to paint Newburn in a very specific light. And rather than undoing that in this latest storyline, it’s evolved to become a story about what it really means to be a morally ambiguous anti-hero (of sorts). The kind of book that confronts our assumption of who might be cool and why, and what this game might look like in our increasingly complicated world. Newburn is changing in front of our very eyes, and the process so far has been a profound confrontation. I’m excited to see where it goes — even if I’m also a tad scared to see Harvey Dent’s monologue effectively come to life.

Final Thought: The “downfall” of Easton Newburn continues in dazzling fashion.

Score: 8/10

Black Hammer: The End #2

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/27/23

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

I didn’t even need all of issue #1 of Black Hammer: The End to know it was a success. Even midway through, it felt like creators Jeff Lemire and Malachi Ward were trying something new with the “multiverse event” trope, and to extend its core capabilities. While issue #2 was a much quieter, more subdued continuation, there were some important tidbits laid out and further teased to support this book’s grander campaign.

A lot of these events feature doppelgängers of our beloved heroes — and that’s doubly true here. Whereas our “real” Black Hammer heroes remain stuck in reality (where heroes are only fodder for comic books), a multiversal team is assembling. That includes the “Soviet Super Champion” Abram Slam (Earth 12); Earth 17’s Gorilla Gail, the badass Cosmic Skulldigger, and a despot version of Barbalien named Barbaliax.

Lemire’s portrayal here really hints at the idea that this event will make good in likely these events’ most important aspect: better understanding our own heroes. The alt versions here feel assembled to comment on these heroes’ motivations and larger arcs, a feat which is all the more intriguing as our heroes are now “real,” which adds some layers to this deeply meta story/process. It feels like all of these layers are being built in such a way that we’re waiting for something to coalesce — at which point I think we’ll have some multifaceted epic that, at its core, is about our own relationship to these characters, the way they’ve since evolved, and how our understanding of them and these events is a larger commentary on storytelling and comics in general. It’s still early, but this issue especially was strategic in setting up big moves (including even more reasons why Colonel Weird is an integral story element).

A big part of loving this book thus far has been the artwork of Ward as he’s tried build this world into something really interesting that also extends the story’s main interests (i.e., juxtaposing our understanding of these heroes). Overall, #1 felt a little stronger visually, even as #2 excels thanks to some solid character designs (Cosmic Skulldigger, Abram Slam, and even one Golden Guinevere, who makes ren faire cosplay really cool). But a quieter, character-centric story didn’t really give us a lot visually beyond those core moments, and that’s maybe a potential long-term issue with this book.

That, for as great as Ward’s art is (again, there’s still cool moments in #2, and even quick character close-ups have heaps of power) it’s not doing as much as it nearly could. Which is to say, with so much going on and big ideas swirling all around, I think I want and/or need these bigger, varied sets and scenes to draw out the many layers. Sure, too much might affect the intimate, hugely human tone of this story, but it’s only when we get a balance of, say, big fights and quiet convos that we see the sheer scope of it all. That without that more robust visual element, we get too much of one thing and it impacts this book’s momentum and it’s ability to balance all these grandiose ideas and even bigger universes. Once again, the art is up to the challenge —  it certainly nailed the many looks of the accompanying heroes/universes. Rather, issue #2 is an integral time for this huge story, and while it felt engaging, it didn’t exactly give us every bit of these many universes needed to capture how big it all is, and that affects what this narrative is capable of thus far.

The thing about these universe-spanning events is that they show us things we didn’t know we needed. That some beloved hero may have a fatal flaw, or how a minor changed could have “saved” some supervillain. And, to an extent, this issue has exemplified that tendency for this event, and showed us the early foundations of its larger machinations and an emotionally-adjacent range of devastation. More gears need to turn, and things to fall into place, but we’re on our way to some universe-altering hijinks.

Final Thought: Universes collide and storytelling magic takes shape.

Score: 7.5/10

Alice Never After #3

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/27/23

Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

In title alone, Alice Never After hasn’t exactly been subtle in its intent to extend and reconfigure that beloved story. Yet across its first two issues, writer-artist Dan Panosian and artist Giorgio Spalletta have taken their time in developing the dueling worlds of Alice: gritty life in London, where she’s trapped in her own mind, and her burgeoning reign as the Queen of Hearts in Neverland.

And that slow build has been effective so far, comparing and contrasting to craft a story about reality, family bonds, and how we overcome tragedy. But issue #3 is where this Cheshire Cat really bares its teeth, and we get something all the more deliberate and robust.

To an extent, that more heavy-handed approach does seem to work quite well. It’s the thing that really connects the two worlds of Alice, and lets Panosian’s London and Spalletta’s Wonderland interact in some intriguing ways that don’t so much question reality as make it seem like this wonderful farce. It’s the first time we see some real and true connections between these worlds (even beyond just their subtle flirtations thus far), and through those connections the story begins to build in earnest.

What exactly is the crux of that story? While you’ll need to read on, but suffice to say it feels like a proper turn for the story into something all the more substantial. (Not that there hasn’t been weight to the story so far, but it’s been all about these incremental moves toward something grander.) And with that turn, we not only get something heftier from a narrative standpoint, but those stakes that perhaps were only teased so far. That feels like a proper shift for this book — a way to not only up the action (as the wedding stuff did in #2) but to do so in a way that it all resonates that much deeper.

If issue #2 had a downside, it’s that juicy London bits felt disconnected somehow, and this issue corrects that mistake by letting it all land in our world and really drive home that this is a book about a very specific kind of escapism and what that might actually mean.

Yet amid some of the more noticeable worlds-building, there were a few instances where I felt things came off a tad irksome or lackluster. The aforementioned Cheshire Cat plays a bigger role, and we see, rather bluntly, his real-world “counterpart” in a display that felt too heavy-handed and even a tad insulting to readers. Which is a rare feat for Spalletta’s fantasy land, which so far has been able to balance that manic joy with an undercurrent of more sinister intentions and energies. There’s some solid stuff here visually — a nice sight gag with Alice in the kitchen, for instance — as well as some more greater character work that is both fantastical while furthering the genuinely endearing personality of this series. While that Cheshire stuff wasn’t a defining factor, it was a noticeable sore thumb, pushing readers’ buttons instead of (like the rest of the issue) pushing creative boundaries. It was the sort of moment that takes you out (even briefly) of the fiction of this world, and that’s already a perilous balancing act requiring proper attention and focus.

It might not have colored the whole issue, but it does come in stark contrast to a moment with Alice’s sister, Edith, as she takes some important steps in reversing Alice’s “condition.” She and the not-so good Dr. Madsen have a great moment that plays to the fiction of this world while being a profound character dissection for both. And that relationship between moments — the Cheshire reveal and the Madsen-Edith chat — may ultimately encapsulate this issue. Big moves were made, even as some minor missteps colored the experience. Nothing left to do, though, but continue down this rabbit hole and hope we’re not late to some increasingly vital story beats and all-too-important developments.

Final Thought: Realities blur as we reach a vital turning point.

Score: 8/10

Blade #3

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/27/23

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

If you read this week’s Judging by the Cover, I made an assumption about Blade #3 that proved to be totally and utterly wrong. In Blade and Rotha’s ongoing mission (that’s playing like a really slick heist/caper movie), I’d assumed a “special guest” was really Captain America. Now, I won’t spoil who it really is, but two things remain true: 1) I humbly wear this egg on my face and 2) the identity of our new player is yet another decision that further proves this book’s true skill and scope.

Much like with my Cap guess, the real guest is still a great foil for Blade, and someone to further complicate this storyline in some inventive ways while letting us dive even deeper into Blade. (More specifically, I think Blade and our guest both approach the world of magic in ways that feel similar but differ on some very key points, like levels of responsibility and the role they play in safeguarding things.) But all of that’s for issue #4, and in the meantime, issue #3 was just as important of a turn.

A lot of this issue focused on detailing the weapon that Blade and Rotha need to bring down the demonic Adana, and that included some great celestial backstory into the Marvel Universe. And, sure, explainers can sometimes be a drag, but this book never forgets to give us some action-y goodness to balance all of that world-building. The art team — Elena Casagrande, Roberto Poggi, KJ Diaz, and Valentina Pinti — have forged a solid visual look for this book, and it’s something that balances old martial arts flicks and even the 2000s Constantine film in a way that’s compelling and married to some really essential storytelling traditions. They make exploding bad guys, burning monks, and a table impaled with arrows feel wholly stylized without ever pulling away from what this book ultimately is about: relationships.

It’s an odd thing to think about the daywalker being an exploration for character studies, but that’s sort of what writer Bryan Hill is doing. Whether it’s Blade and Rotha — I’m loving their veteran cop/eager rookie dynamic — Blade and Tulip, Tulip and Rotha, and even Blade and our new guest, it’s about creating tension and sussing out character bits through these funny, sometimes terse interactions. Even the big bad of this arc — the demon god Adana — feels properly situated to expertly comment on this relationship motif — her future battle with Blade should be a novel exploration of two characters who are opposed but exemplify some instance of dichotomy. (Plus, Adana’s design continues to be great visually, and the whole “flayed human” look really extends her status as a new and terrifying player in the Marvel Universe.) Plus, that idea of dichotomy emerged rather perfectly in this issue, and it’ll be interesting to see what that does as thematic tentpole for the rest of this story.

But from that keen interest in interpersonal relationships, we’re getting all sorts of layers and textures to a story that’s decidedly straightforward (again, a cool heist). That’s a decidedly novel spin here — it keeps things grounded and puts the focus where it should be, in playing these compelling characters off one another and cultivating insight into their morals, history, and sustained development. Issue #4 is likely to be even more of a magically-oriented affair, but there’s no denying that #3 cast its own spell with a solid chapter of big fights, robust intrigue, and poignant character developments.

Final Thought: Talk about the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” amirite?!

Score: 8/10

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