Hit Me With Your Best Shot

For the week of September 12, 2012, I’ve plucked two comics from an enormous batch that, month after month, prove themselves priority reads. First up is Batman, by the endlessly inventive team of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. With this being another issue 0 origin story, you might point out that Batman: Year One covered the beat flawlessly back in 1986. Or that Batman: Earth One polished the well-trod material just last Spring.

But history doesn’t stop Snyder and Capullo from delivering the best of DC’s New 52, and what often feels like the best comic currently published anywhere. History, in fact, greatly enables Snyder, who loves strengthening Batman’s ties to Gotham city. “What was once old,” says a bank manager on the opening page, “will be new again.” He no sooner slices into a cake sculpted like his bank than the Red Hood Gang charges in for a hold-up.

The Red Hood was actually the Joker’s first criminal guise, according to a tale from the 50s. This character, grinning from under a shiny red helmet, orders one of his men to “put down” the banker. The thug pistol-whips the man instead of shooting him. Within a few tense panels, the Red Hood becomes sure of an imposter in the ranks, and says, “You’re going to blow your brains out. Right here, right now.” Unmasked, with a gun in his mouth, the imposter hesitates. “Come on already, will you? This is getting old!” A young Bruce Wayne, daringly disguised, says, “Then let me make it new for you.”

Our hero’s escape from the bank, through the sewer, showcases Capullo’s masterful cinematography. His shadows are deep and his tech is thrillingly employed. The rest of the issue, an extensive chat between Bruce and Jim Gordon, shows that both are subtly younger, this tale being a flashback, and a neat bit with one of the first batarangs reveals creative minds never at rest.

Meanwhile, across the publishing pond at Marvel, a loud and all-consuming Summer crossover is finally about to croak. The penultimate issue of Avengers vs. X-Men is here, but don’t worry- I won’t spoil it like a certain New York newspaper did. The series itself needs summarizing, and I’ll be struggling words-wise to meet the sheer majesty of Olivier Coipel’s art.

Conceived and delivered by five of the company’s best writers, this mega-brawl sees humans and mutants alike staring down the Phoenix, a cosmic force that manifests though (and typically corrupts) a super-powered host. The first and best time around, the Phoenix took over X-Man Jean Grey. She went insane with power, killing billions and eventually herself. This time, the Phoenix force is shared (ironically) among five heroic mutants: Cyclops, Emma Frost, Namor, Colossus and Magik.

To spite the all-powerful Phoenix cabal’s fascist correcting of worldly ills like hunger and war, the Avengers have confronted them repeatedly. The rest of the mutant X-Men, pawns of the cabal, have battled Captain America and Iron Man’s team to a stand still each time. Nevertheless, members of the cabal have fallen, as the Phoenix force flees a weakened host to reside in a stronger one.

Which brings us to today’s issue. Cyclops and Emma are the last two hosts. Scribe Brian Bendis keeps his woefully rambling dialogue fairly sharp as they contemplate turning on each other. “We have the power to remake the world the way it was always supposed to be,” Emma says. “If not us, who? This is how things like this are done.”

Even when focused, Bendis pads his writing like a couch fort. But visionary artist Coipel tells more of this story than any writer could anyway. Inker Mark Morales and colorist Laura Martin help, buffing his already electrifying layouts into pop magnificence. Not since Jack Kirby, John Buscema and other 60s greats invented what superpowers in action should look like has comic art been so satisfying to behold.

An early shot of the Avengers and X-Men embracing is a tarot card of sorts. Then again, the result of this series is already being advertised relentlessly. The two headlining teams, once they merge to defeat Cyclops’ Dark Phoenix persona, will stay together, like the Avengers themselves did after battling Loki decades ago. Politics in the Marvel Universe might change, with mutants gaining a bit more legitimacy. That, or the Avengers could be branded public enemies. Realistically, a wonderful third option awaits readers, because they’ll jump off just about any cliff at the House of Ideas. We don’t dare look away.

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