Best Shots Reviews: ULTIMATES #4, BLACK CANARY #8, JUGHEAD #4

"Jughead #4" variant cover
Credit: Archie Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

The Ultimates #4
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Kenneth Rocafort and Dan Brown
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

A team books lives and dies by its ability to balance its cast. In its first three issues, The Ultimates was able to do this with aplomb, providing each of its powerful members something to do both within the team structure itself and the overall narrative. The Ultimates #4 is the first time that writer Al Ewing and artist Kenneth Rocafort have really focused on a singular team member, and the issue will win or lose readers based on that decision.

The story here bounces back and forth between the past and the present, focusing on Blue Marvel’s relationship with his enemy, Anti-Man. Ewing wisely opens the issue in the past, allowing readers to first know the characters as Adam Brashear and Connor Sims. The narrative plays out as readers might expect, and Ewing’s dialogue deftly hints at the overall socio-political climate that both men are working under. Many readers missed out on Blue Marvel’s debut, and so Ewing’s tale here allows readers to learn more about how the character came to be.

By design, the narrative to The Ultimates #4 is dedicated to telling Blue Marvel’s narrative, but Ewing’s script focuses so heavily on the past that the other members of the Ultimates team falls into background. Black Panther and Miss America Chavez suffer the most here, each only getting a panel or two. Spectrum and Captain Marvel fare a little better, being able to get in on the action, but readers who aren’t warm on the Blue Marvel character may find themselves frustrated with the narrow focus of the issue.

Kenneth Rocafort’s artwork throughout the issue is utterly fantastic, especially in the design work. The exploration armor in particular has a wild sci-fi design to it that fits the tone of the book. Rocafort also captures the emotion in the friendship between Adam and Connor. Even when the characters clash in their present, god-like, conditions, Rocafort’s detailed character work still allows them to be seen as human beings first, with human flaws and anger.

Dan Brown and Rocafort split coloring duties in the issue, and the work throughout matches the far-flung sci-fi of the narrative. The colors use energetic blues and oranges to convey the massive power of these characters, making them feel larger-than-life. There is also a balance to it. As powerful as Adam and Connor are, when a third party enters the fray, their own bursts of energy simply don’t hold up to the brightness of the new combatant and it becomes instantly clear through the coloring who holds the power.

The Ultimates #4 is an example of how a team book can fall prey to focusing to singularly on an individual member. Blue Marvel’s narrative is an entertaining one, full of the drama and character so many comic books lack. But it’s unfortunate that the rest of the team falls into the background to the degree that they do. That Ewing’s script is able to overcome this shortfall is a testament to his ability, and the artwork by Rocafort and Brown is mesmerizing. If the next issue of The Ultimates can deliver more narrative balance between its cast, then the series can rise to new heights. If not, readers will have to “settle” for well-told stories focusing on singular members.

Credit: DC Comics

Black Canary #8
Written by Brenden Fletcher
Art by Sandy Jarrell and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Black Canary’s history has never been terribly easy to follow, with pre-Crisis attempts to reconcile her earlier adventures with her later sonic powers resulting in multiple retcons. Even her television counterpart has been through two iterations. So it is little surprise that this newer series has built in a fair bit of complex backstory already for its titular bandleader, with a few extra layers peeled back by this issue. Yet for a jump-on point, it’s a little odd that writer Brenden Fletcher throws us in at the deep end with a deliberate bit of obfuscation.

This issue of Black Canary begins with a mystery, as the members of the band are being questioned by the GCPD about the disappearance of Dinah in the previous issue. Meanwhile, Dinah is being forced to fight in a cage brawls with an inhibitor blocking her from using her powers. It is rapidly revealed that the mysterious white ninja that orchestrated her kidnap is allegedly her aunt, and they are looking for information about Dinah’s mother. The mere mention of the latter is evocative of DC’s Golden Age, when the Black Canary was a very different entity.

Fletcher’s issue treads a curious line between entry-level and excessive exposition, with the first handful of pages teeming with so much dialogue that potential new readers may have difficulty accessing it. That’s not to say that the narrative isn’t a wee bit kick-ass as well, and the addition of the reintroduced Vixen leads to one hell of an action finale. It’s just that the script seem, at least at times, so overly burdened with explanatory notes along the way. Perhaps its just that, for the moment at least, the book has wandered away from the core story about a band that sticks together, and their absence as a unit is palpable.

Sandy Jarrell’s art is so good that you’ll instantly forget that the also superb Annie Wu isn’t on board this month. Backed by Lee Loughridge’s colors, it’s a seamless experience between the two artists, the earthy oranges and purples of Dinah’s captive state at a stark contrast with the sterility of the surrounding of the rest of the band. Of particular note are the spaces surrounding the African styles of Dinah’s “thunderdome” area, pushing the book well outside of its comfort zone of backstage passes and hard traveling road trips.

Make no mistake: Black Canary remains one of the most interesting books DC is putting out at the moment, and Fletcher’s saga grows more intriguing by the month. It’s not so much of it being a “rare misstep” so much as one weighted down by the necessity of launching into a new arc feet first.

Credit: Archie Comics

Jughead #4
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Erica Henderson
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Something is amiss at Riverdale High, and Jughead Jones seems to be the only one paying attention. Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson’s Jughead #4 finds our favorite burger-loving slacker trying and failing to convince his friends that the new Principle Stanger is up to no good. However, after being rebuked by the Riverdale Gang, Jughead takes it upon himself to enlist an unlikely ally in the form of the tech-savvy Dilton to gather intelligence on his new faculty rival. This fourth issue of Jughead is filled with clever turns of phrase and preciously slick artwork throughout, but its real strength is the strength of the entire rebooted Archie line: the recontextualization of classic Archie Comics beats and narratives. Zdarsky and Henderson take Jughead from lovable lout to a modern guy living in a modern world not unlike our own, all while hitting classic comedy beats and reworking some of Jughead’s strangest tendencies for a new audience. Jughead #4 may look vintage, but the story inside is right at home in 2016.

Hot of the heels of his recent expulsion, this fourth issue finds Jughead back in school and back on the case of Principal Stanger, Principal Weatherbee’s hard nosed replacement. While the reveal of Jughead’s asexuality grabbed headlines this week, Jughead #4 bares a very strong resemblance to Jughead tales of old. We have an authority figure, a “secret plot” that only Jughead can see, and yet another scene of Jughead being knocked unconscious thanks to dodgeball. Much like Mark Waid over on the main Archie title, Chip Zdarsky displays a strong understanding of classic Jughead, which makes his new Jughead stories all the more engaging. Armed with a working knowledge of what came before, Zdarsky is free to transplant Jughead into a world not unlike our own, which makes the vintage story beats feel new. Jughead has been annoying authority figures for decades now and it is nice to see that even in 2016, things haven’t changed one bit.

Along with the vintage-style script, artist Erica Henderson also gives us plenty of vibrant and expressive visuals, complete with simple, primary color filled backgrounds. While Henderson’s character expressions and tight panel work are on full display in Jughead #4, its when Jughead is once again knocked out and momentarily trapped in his own vivid imagination that she truly takes this fourth issue to the next level. As Jughead lies groaning on the gym floor, in his head he becomes Slackbeard, legendary pirate and beardless treasure hunter, surrounded by pirate versions of his friends and foes. Henderson fully commits to this issue’s latest flight of fancy, framing it like a fun side story taking place in the dead center of the main narrative, complete with its own title page. Henderson also adds a bit of flair into the swashbuckling proceedings with a stylish set of yellow and white backgrounds as Slackbeard and Captain Principle finally cross swords in an unexpectedly well-blocked action sequence that jars us and our food-loving friend back into reality. While I really don’t think of action sequences when I think of Jughead Erica Henderson, along with Zdarsky, turn what could be just a random flight of fancy into a narratively charged, and visually engaging set piece; a narrative tool that is becoming a slick staple of Jughead and one that I hope doesn’t go away any time soon.

Making something old feel new again is one of the hardest things you could do in any medium. That said, Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson make it look easy with Jughead #4, a comic that takes story beats and characters that have been around since the ’40s and makes them feel brand new and vital to the new landscape of comics. Jughead #4 is clever and a fun read, but its major strength will always be its respect for the stories that came before and the care it takes to make those stories feel new again. Jughead may have been around for decades, but this creative team is taking great strides to make sure that it feels like he and the gang never left.

Similar content
Twitter activity