Best Shots Reviews: MIGHTY THOR #4, SUPERMAN: AMERICAN ALIEN #4

DC Comics February 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

The Mighty Thor #4
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Heavy are the hands that wield the hammer. Thankfully for fans of The Mighty Thor, Secret Wars didn’t wipe away all of the build-up of Jason Aaron’s previous work on the character, and the writer seems to be using the book to make a much larger statement about our world. When Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby first began work on the Odinson, Kirby’s plan was always for the gods to die in Ragnarok and then be replaced. Of course, given the popularity of the title, Stan wouldn’t let that happen, and Kirby shelved his New Gods ideas until he left for DC. Aaron seems to be carrying on in Kirby’s tradition but with a slightly adjusted M.O. Rather than replaced the characters themselves, he’s aiming to change the power structures that govern them, and that might be wholly more poignant. Of course, he has one of the best artists in Marvel’s stable in Russell Dauterman to bring these ideas to life, ensuring that any time the script misses the mark, the art is able to pick up the slack.

Thor’s supporting cast has always had a wealth of strong women. From Freyja to Sif, Valkyrie, Hela and Enchantress (to name a few), they’ve almost always been involved in the adventures of Asgard and they represent a variety of worldviews and motivations. That‘s kind of rare in superhero comic books, but Aaron realized that strength and decided to turn it into the focus of his run. With Jane Foster at the center as the All-New Mighty Thor and Odin out of the picture for a while, Aaron was able to make the title less of a boy’s club and highlight how much differently things would be under the All-Mother’s rule. Of course all good things must come to an end and Odin’s return allowed Aaron to utilize one of Marvel’s favorite tropes: a trial.

But “The Trial of the All-Mother” is less of a trial and more of a statement. Jane Foster deals with the internal struggles of not only wielding Mjolnir but also having cancer. She and Freyja both struggle to be taken seriously as women in power in their respective realms. And while I don’t think that Aaron is aiming to make a statement as broad as “things would be better if women ran everything,” I do believe that he’s saying that the current system doesn’t work. That means in Asgard and the Ten Realms specifically in the book, but it’s not hard to see how Aaron might be commenting on current affairs. Odin’s blustering rhetoric about how he is Asgard does not sound that far off from the words spouted by American conservatives who want to build walls to keep immigrants out and Make America Great Again.

That’s what makes this book a bit larger than itself. I mean, we’re already talking about a title in which alien beings that humans can only understand as gods fight epic battles against each other in space. But in using those genre conventions, Aaron is able to draw a throughline to our world. I think that people can forget that good comics have that ability.

Russell Dauterman has been Aaron’s dutiful partner for a while now, and he’s still on top of his game here. I do think that his layouts work a lot better for the printed page than they do on digital, but that can hardly be considered a knock against him as his work is very dynamic. (As an industry, we just need to find a way to better translate that dynamicism to our digital devices.) Dauterman’s expression are still world-class, but I think his character designs can be a little bit over-the-top. Odin comes across looking more like an angry Santa Claus than a god-king who feels he’s been betrayed. Similarly, Freyja sports an elaborate get-up even as she’s in chains, which seems a bit out of place at a high-stakes trial. Aaron’s script doesn’t allow for quite as much action as previous issues, opting for a more restrained tone before launching into next month’s big battle, but Dauterman is still able to deliver some really strong character moments from Loki, Volstagg and Laufey.

The Mighty Thor continues to quietly be one of the better superhero books on the stands. Aaron seems to be directly addressing any opposition that people had to putting Jane Foster under the helmet within his narrative while also telling a good story. He’s blessed with the opportunity to continue working with Russell Dauterman. They are proving to be one of the strongest creative teams in the post-Secret Wars Marvel Universe, and that’s no small feat.

Credit: DC Comics

Superman: American Alien #4
Written by Max Landis
Art by Jae Lee and June Chung
Lettering by John Workman
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Max Landis writes in the latest issue of Superman: American Alien #4 that "growing up is... becoming a greater version of yourself." But as he deviates from Clark Kent's evolution into the Man of Steel, I might also argue that growing up also accepting yourself for who you are -- something I'm not sure this guest-star-laden issue necessarily does. But while you could easily debate the inclusion of so many new characters - which inevitably come at the cost of Landis's bold new characterization of Superman - the art team for this issue makes Superman: American Alien #4 the best-looking installment yet.

While previous issues of Superman: American Alien have shown a surprisingly wild, reckless side to Clark Kent, but by this fourth issue, you already see Clark slowly starting to solidify into his more recognizable mild-mannered reporter persona, as he tries to score his first big break on the Metropolis news scene. There's a sense of reactiveness to much of Clark's characterization in this issue, and much of that comes with the sheer number of guest stars appearing in this issue. While Lois Lane and Lex Luthor feel like appropriate additions given this issue's setting, once you add in names like Oliver Queen, Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne, suddenly that becomes a lot to pack in, even with this book's 23 pages.

In many ways, though, it almost feels like an embarassment of riches - Lois makes a strong first impression despite only being in the issue for a short period of time, and Dick Grayson sizing Clark up detective-style has a great Lie to Me vibe to it. Landis's take on Lex Luthor might be the highlight of the issue, as he brings a ruthless, shark-like quality to his limitless intellect and ambition. "The actual gift of genius, of work ethic, of aspiration, is rarer than a white tiger," Lex says, a dark shadow against Metropolis's bright skyline. There's so much malevolence that you almost don't realize the optimistic, entrepreneurial spirit behind his words - and of course, there's the tragic irony that if one-percenter vigilantes like Green Arrow and Batman weren't so secretive, Lex might not feel this compulsion to lord over everyone.

And speaking of lording over everyone - wow, Jae Lee and June Chung just dominate with this issue. Lee has such a wonderfully unique style to his artwork - while readers may notice his unorthodox, geometric layouts (such as Lois Lane being introduced against the punchy, brutal prose of her fellowship application), the real secret to his beautiful art is his sparse, clean-lined characters contrasting against lushly inked shadow. The result is something ethereal, sometimes eerie - you can sense there's some deeper power underneath Clark Kent's slouch, or a depth of scary wisdom hidden behind young Dick Grayson's eyes. (And that's to say nothing of the shadows which threaten to engulf Lex Luthor on every page he's in.) June Chung's colorwork also lends a brightness to Metropolis - indeed, it's beautiful to see the golden city shining against the bright blue sky. She makes Metropolis feel like the kind of place that would attract a Man of Tomorrow. Even the lettering looks superb here, with John Workman lending so much personality to his one-of-a-kind fontwork.

Between Landis's incisive takes on the DCU and Lee's otherworldly artwork, it's all so good that you can almost ignore the fact that Clark Kent feels like a vehicle to all these cameos rather than someone actively participating with them. Indeed, it's only when Bruce Wayne makes his inevitable entrance that the energy surrounding this would-be Superman finally picks up, because Landis and Lee aren't afraid to show off the kind of violence that the Batman might inflict on an evildoer - or the kind of shock he might exhibit when he realizes he's picked on the wrong guy. But while Lee makes the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight's first encounter look positively brutal, at the end of the day, it also feels a little bit reductive. Is Superman really supposed to be taking his cues from Batman? Is he really the last one to this superhero party? It all winds up coming back to the same place - that Superman feels like the last one to get any consideration in his own book.

But despite this detour into the greater DC Universe, I do feel like Landis is onto something with this issue of Superman: American Alien, as he's buoyed by the spectacular artwork of Jae Lee and June Chung. Whether you love Landis or hate him, it's clear that he's brought a ton of thinking about the structure of DC's superheroic pantheon, how they fit and interact with one another, with clearly defined points of view and methods of operation. That's the kind of deliberation that often gets ignored in today's event- and reboot-centric superhero marketplace. But ultimately, for a series that is ostensibly rooted in reinventing the Man of Steel, this issue instead finds fertile ground in DC's other heroes.

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