Best Shots Reviews: CAPTAIN AMERICA: WHITE #1, STAR WARS #9, SUPERMAN/WONDER WOMAN #21

"Superman/Wonder Woman #21" preview
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Captain America: White #1
Written by Jeph Loeb
Art by Tim Sale and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Richard Starking
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

At long last, the latest in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s color series is upon us! Captain America: White was announced in 2008 during the waning days of the Bush administration but after a zero issue, it was delayed indefinitely. Previous entries (Daredevil: Yellow, Hulk: Grey and Spider-Man: Blue) provided unique character studies through the lens of two of the most respected creators in comics, and so far, this miniseries looks to be no different. In exploring the depths of Captain America as a character is also to recognize him as a hero who has seen more than any other character in the Marvel Universe. His origins are rooted in World War II, making him immune to Marvel’s sliding timeline that has allowed them to update their characters and tweak them to fit a more modern audience. Loeb and Sale key in on that disconnect. This isn’t a story about a man out of time - at least in this issue - it’s an examination of how a man becomes an icon but still struggles to maintain his humanity.

If there’s ever a character to get slapped with the “old-fashioned” tag, it’s Cap. In 2015, the concept of wrapping yourself in the flag to fight injustices just feels dated. Most other countries don’t have heroes doing the same. It’s audacious. It seems almost egotistical, and for a modern reader clued into current events, it seems like the wrong way to identify yourself. And that’s a perception that Loeb has to tackle head-on in his narrative. The thing is that even in the midst of World War II, other soldiers - namely Sgt. Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos - felt much the same way. Loeb riffs directly on the Captain America stories of yesteryear, portraying Steve Rogers as something of a bumbling buffoon to his superiors while Captain America saves the day repeatedly and isn’t respected for it. Cap’s overwhelming sense of duty and respect trumps his personal feelings about being bullied by the other soldiers, but Loeb presents Cap’s sidekick, Bucky Barnes, as something of a voice of reason, calling out these aggressions and in some way dishing them right back. It’s a nice way for Loeb to present their team dynamic - their rapport extends far beyond the battlefield and even when Cap does have to pull rank, he still admits to the audience that Bucky was right.

Steve Rogers is a man who wants to be all good things for all good people. His struggle between being a larger-than-life caricature of war and a real person is framed expertly by the greatest tragedy that Steve has known at this point: Bucky’s death. It’s an event that defines his existence because it’s his greatest failing. In standing up for his country and his fellow countrymen, he couldn’t save someone who is ostensibly his best friend, a soldier who both was seen as a child and yet was far more worldly than the awkward Steve Rogers could ever hope to be. So the issue reads like a requiem for Bucky that acknowledges the most human parts of Steve Rogers. There’s nothing revisionist about it. Steve’s remorse is real. His acknowledgement of his failures weighs heavy. Loeb is at the top of his game.

And this Tim Sale guy is no slouch, either. The character renderings are crisp and clean. They’re efficient while remaining recognizable. And while sometimes he loses a bit of his handle on body proportions, it’s excusable when it’s in the service of some dynamicism. Sale’s work has always been deep and moody; while those might not be the first words that come to your mind in regards to Captain America, the approach works very well here. The “present-day” opening is a little odd in terms of coloring, as Dave Stewart uses a more washed-out palette that comes in stark contrast to the rest of the book. The strength of Sale’s work is removed with this method, as his blacks all become gray and the colors don’t pop. Once we get into the meat of the story, however, the familiar, distinct colors return. Stewart uses a pared-down palette, but keeps those blacks nice and bright with a sort of watercolor or copic marker feel to them. This allows Sale to create his mood with shadows but also for the shadows to have some variation and contrast with themselves for some striking visuals.

Captain America: White is by no means a perfect book. Loeb only really just introduced his thesis statement between this and the zero issue without giving much indication as to how this story will play out. There are a few different directions for it to go and what we have know is an exciting revisiting of some of Cap’s WWII history; not only of his deeds there but the dynamic that he had with his partner and the other soldiers. Tim Sale is one of comic’s greatest working artists and it’s a treat to see him dig into a book like this. All the hallmarks of his style are here, ensuring that longtime fans won’t be disappointed. Captain America: White is a solid start to what is hopefully another great entry in the partnership between two great creators.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Star Wars #9
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger and Justin Ponsor
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Comic books, in many ways, are an impossible pursuit of one's past. It's the reason why licensed characters like Spider-Man and the Justice League has survived and thrived over the decades - not only do creators wish to leave their mark on classic characters, but readers are ultimately looking for the same sense of wonder that they felt when they opened a comic for the first time. The bar for comic books is constantly being raised, and - more often than not - expectations can rarely be met.

But I have good news for Star Wars fans. Because thanks to the talents of Jason Aaron and Stuart Immonen, readers can relive the magic they felt sitting in a darkened theater, back to the first time they visited a galaxy far, far away.

I don't say this lightly - but in particular, Star Wars #9 feels like a highlight in an already impeccable run. Bouncing between Luke Skywalker facing down a world full of outlaws on Nar Shaddaa and Han Solo trying to survive an Imperial assault - that is, if Princess Leia or his alleged ex-wife Sana don't kill him first - this is an exciting, action-packed read that feels like a spectacular add-on to the original Star Wars mythology.

Aaron starts off the issue with a brisk action sequence, recognizing that his clever wordplay won't be nearly as effective as showing off his greatest asset: namely, the artwork of Stuart Immonen. We watch Luke in hot pursuit of a smuggler who has stolen his lightsaber, and you can't help but marvel at Immonen's sense of design - Nar Shaddaa (also known as "The Smuggler's Moon") feels like nothing we've ever seen in the Star Wars universe before, from its everpresent brown smog to its techno-favelas that litter the landscape. Immonen's likeness of Mark Hamill is on point, and his sense of motion is just unparalleled, as we watch Luke make an impossible leap to finally catch up to his slippery quarry. "You're insane," the smuggler says, after they fall from a dizzying height. "No," Luke replies. "I'm a Skywalker."

It's a spectacular opening sequence, and even better, Aaron and Immonen don't let up. They remember the breakneck action from the original trilogy, and they're able to give not just Luke, but Leia, Han and Sana plenty of obstacles to overcome. I doubt I'm exaggerating when I say this is some of the best licensed character work that Jason Aaron has ever done, and so much of that is based on his pacing and his attention to detail. For example, he remembers that underneath its sprawling mythology and epic battles, Star Wars also had a chemistry and sense of humor between its characters, and he expertly channels that as he has Leia and Han both scrambling to survive. (Han is simply shouting anxiously for his gun - Leia, meanwhile, takes out a trio of Imperial soldiers, prompting one to ask, "This is a princess?")

In many ways, it's easy to be disappointed in comics - ultimately, what a reader will consider "classic" is typically what they read as a child, and with growing expectations and sensibilities, even old favorites can sometimes lose their luster. But when you approach iconic books like Star Wars, it's easy to remember what made them so great in the first place. What rarely happens, however, is successfully recalling those qualities and revisiting them through such talented creators. Thankfully, Jason Aaron and Stuart Immonen are no ordinary pair, bringing back all the excitement you might have felt when you saw the original films. They're working on the book of a lifetime, and thankfully for us, they've delivered.

Credit: DC Comics

Superman/Wonder Woman #21
Written by Peter Tomasi
Art by Doug Mahnke, Jaime Mendoza, Mark Irwin, Sean Parsons, Scott Hanna, Wil Quintana, Ulises Arreola and Tomeu Morey
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The fallout behind Superman's identity continues in Superman/Wonder Woman #21, and with Clark's supporting cast incarcerated in a government prison, writer Peter Tomasi, artist Doug Mahnke and an army of inkers and colorists make this an entertaining read. Yet while Tomasi, Mahkne and company's style is this book's saving grace, you can't help but notice that the chemistry between Clark and Diana is starting to falter.

The book opens up with a bang, as Tomasi and Mahnke make a great case for writing a full Justice League book, as they quickly and concisely (re)introduce readers to Ronnie Raymond and Jason Rusch, the atomic-powered duo known as Firestorm. After quickly ramping up the tension with an unknown foe who effortlessly takes out the Nuclear Men, however, Tomasi and Mahnke are pulled back down to earth, as they have to focus on Superman and Wonder Woman's latest conflict.

Unfortunately, the potential from the last issue is largely lost here, as Tomasi focuses less on Wonder Woman interrogating Superman's closest friends, and more of the conflict between Diana and her significant other once he finds out what she's done. While Tomasi's voices feel thoughtful, the underlying tension in this story feels manufactured, as Clark complains about Diana using her Lasso of Truth to verify his friends' intentions - Tomasi likens Diana's methods to coercion, but ultimately, the Lasso didn't tell us anything we couldn't have possibly guessed already. (The missed potential with Diana not hashing it out with longtime Superman love interest Lois Lane is absolutely excruciating!) Ironically, it's people like Lois Lane and Perry White who are more interesting than the Amazing Amazon here, particularly because we catch a glimpse of the anger and hurt these people are carrying, having been lied to for all this time.

Yet while the story winds up giving way to low-calorie fisticuffs featuring a group of human black holes, the book does pick up steam. Tomasi manages to cement his central theme - that no matter how bad things get for Clark, Diana won't let him face his foes alone - with a nice dismount at the end of the sequence, and ultimately, artist Doug Mahnke makes this book feel larger than life. While the inking is occasionally inconsistent towards the end of the book - four inkers will do that - the opening pages look beautiful and lush, and Mahnke injects a ton of energy into some fairly talky scenes, such as Superman bursting through a wall or a pack of supercriminals falling from their stasis tanks. His designs of the mysterious villains look creepy as hell, and just the fine detail work - showing how ticked off Superman is, and how poor a job he's doing at hiding it - makes this book look great.

Given the gold mine of storytelling possibilities that Tomasi has with Superman/Wonder Woman - especially given Clark Kent's new status quo - it's weird that this book feels like it's spinning its wheels a bit. It looks spectacular, but I have to believe there's more to Clark and Diana's romantic dynamic than what their conflict of the month might be. But couples change and grow and evolve, and sometimes it takes one party a little longer to catch up - so even if the conflict in Superman/Wonder Woman might feel less than organic, it doesn't mean it's impossible. Here's hoping that with time, this book can grow and mature along with them.

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