Best Shots Reviews: BLACK PANTHER #2, BATMAN/TMNT #6, GWENPOOL #2

DC Comics May 2016 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Black Panther #2
Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Art by Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Superhero comic books are often defined by their hero’s effectiveness. After all, what good is a hero if they can’t save people? Black Panther #2 seeks to tackle this question head on, as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, artist Brian Stelfreeze, and colorist Laura Martin contrast T’Challa’s failures with the successes of others, all while expanding outward and developing aspects of Wakanda that haven’t truly been explored.

A key sequence of world-building in the issue involves a teacher, Changamire, relating to his students a passage from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. The passage echoes both the themes and plot of the issue, however, the scene also feels like a missed opportunity. While it makes sense for an advanced nation to see an influx of foreign philosophy in the confines of a classroom, it seems unfortunate that no semblance of Wakandan thought is brought forward as a counterpoint to Locke, who is essential to Western philosophy. That said, the school is named "Hekima Shule" — the latter a Swahili word that has its roots in the German “schule” — and one can’t help but wonder if Coates is using this injection of Western words to show where the Changamire's freedom-fighting former student Tetu is rallying again, especially as he turns Locke’s question back on former teacher: “What is my remedy against the robber, who so broke into my house?”

In keeping with this exchange, Black Panther #2 is filled with unanswered questions that add to the complexity of the story. The themes of the issue are brought forward in the way that Coates and Stelfreeze juxtapose the actions of the Dora Milaje and the Black Panther. While both liberate people from imprisonment, there is a stark contrast in the way they are received.

Brian Stelfreeze’s art shines in both scenes, but especially during the Dora Milaje prison break. From the design of the prison circling the branches of a giant baobab tree, to the brutal effectiveness of their attacks against the human traffickers, his art positions them as superheroes. Early in the sequence, Stelfreeze uses thin vertical panels, making the book feel as confined and claustrophobic as the prison itself. Once the Angels arrive, the panels begin to expand to a wider frame, mirroring the freedom the Dora Milaje bring. Laura Martin basks the scene in greens that straddle between cool and warm, effectively allowing the mood to change with the action, becoming warmer as the Dora Milaje comfort the women they rescue.

Black Panther, however, does not fare as well. Though Coates’ narration makes clear that in some respects, T’Challa is playing possum in allowing his enemies to touch him, there’s also a sense that he is emotionally flustered, able to see the big picture, but forgetting the small details that would serve him in this fight. It serves as a gut-punch, both to the reader and T’Challa, as the king realizes that the people he has “saved” were being protected by the men he has just taken down. Stelfreeze brilliantly conveys the emotion of the scene, as the woman hangs her head in disappointment while the children look up at their king with hate in their eyes.

Black Panther #2 is a challenging book, subverting its titular hero in a way comic books rarely dare. Rather than deliver a T’Challa that kicks ass and takes names, Coates’ Black Panther is one that is struggling to be effective, even as other heroes rise in the wake of his failures. For long time fans of the character, the ones who have endured the years of destruction and pyrrhic victories, Coates’ approach may be frustrating, tiresome, even shameful. And these are the emotions the hero goes through, struggling against an enemy that can bring his own fears to the forefront. Rather than utilizing a soft reset in the aftermath of Secret Wars, Coates, Stelfreeze and Martin have opted to examine just what all these losses mean to Wakanda and whether or not the country and the man that runs it can regain their souls. It’s a tribute to the craft involved, that Black Panther #2 succeeds in building these thematic questions, but future issues must reply just as strongly, otherwise the mythos risks being torn asunder.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #6
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Freddie Williams II and Jeremy Colwell
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics and IDW Publishing
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

All good things must come to an end — and that time has officially come for Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, James Tynion IV and Freddie Williams II’s cross-company journey into fan-service. For younger readers and diehard fans of the Batman and Turtles franchises, there’s a lot to like about this action-packed finale, even if on a story level, Tynion and Williams perhaps tie this series up together a little too conveniently.

While previous installments of the series have been about comparing and contrasting the Heroes in a Halfshell and Gotham’s Dark Knight, this final issue of Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, as Tynion puts Batman at the mercy of the Shredder, Ra’s al Ghul, and a gaggle of Gotham’s worst villains, all transformed into animal hybrids thanks to a healthy dose of utagen. Batman’s mutated rogue’s gallery is an early highlight of the book, purely on the same sort of gonzo level that made the Turtles so famous in the first place — Williams’ gnarly style works wonders for an elephant version of Bane, an insectoid Poison Ivy, or a polar bear Mr. Freeze, the latter of whom Tynion gives some delightfully punny lines straight out of Batman and Robin.

Additionally, once the Turtles rally to Batman’s rescue — and let’s be honest, I think we all knew the Turtles were going to do the honorable thing and stick around, regardless of personal consequences — Tynion throws plenty of fan-service moments at his readers. A one-on-one fight featuring Batman versus the Shredder is a great bit that’s beautifully rendered by Williams, with 20 panels showing the brutal back-and-forth between the two masters of ninjutsu. The Turtles, having to share space, don’t quite get as much TLC as they fight Ra’s al Ghul, but watching them stand guard over Batman is a potent image, and even smaller bits like watching them leap and kick Ra’s brings me back to my days playing the TMNT NES games.

But ultimately, with so many threats leveled at our heroes, I don’t know if Tynion necessarily sticks the landing in terms of the story math. There is a lot that happens off-panel in this book, and in particular, the League of Assassins and most of the mutated Gotham City villains get taken out in the most convenient and plausibility-stretching methods possible. Additionally, some of the bigger climactic beats Tynion was striving for don’t quite connect — a Turtle-colored Intimidator Suit doesn’t feel like a strong enough conceit to hang a final issue on, while the overly sentimental goodbye between Raphael and Batman doesn’t quite feel earned, even in the context of six issues. (And while I get that Tynion only had a certain number of pages left to wrap everything up, the Turtles’ inevitable return back to their universe is aggravating in how easy it is.)

While the seams are showing a bit in this last issue, that’s not to say that there hasn’t been plenty of good bits to Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a fun series that at its best has nicely wedded the best parts of two iconic franchises. Ultimately, six issues doesn’t necessarily feel like enough space to adequately condense the sprawling universes these two sets of characters inhabit, and it’s a real credit to Tynion that he’s done as well as he has — and to Williams, for making it look this good. Even if the fan service winds up overpowering its structure, this is still a book that demands your attention.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Unbelievable Gwenpool #2
Written by Christopher Hastings
Art by Gurihiru
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The second installment of Unbelievable Gwenpool is a collection of memorable moments. Christopher Hasting's manages to deliver another impressive story about Gwen Poole, the regular girl who has been trapped in Marvel's comic book universe, and who is currently working as a henchman to, of all things, M.O.D.O.K.

Gwen's new boss views himself as a hero of sorts. While M.O.D.O.K. is "designed for killing,” he wants to channel that towards killing evil people. To this end, he has assembled a gang of mercenaries who accept payment for the murder of evildoers. Gwenpool, the human equivalent of TV Tropes, identifies the components of her new team. There's Terrible Eye, the "magic user.” Magic has always occupied an uneasy space in the Marvel universe, and it is brilliantly entertaining to see Terrible Eye call out her spells in hilarious ways. For example, "Unknowable lords of witchery, I call to thee. Mess up this vehicle, please." Mega Tony is the healer / scientist, who also acts as a moral compass for the group. Batroc the Leaper fills the role of thief. This leaves Gwen – powerless, human Gwen – as the tank. M.O.D.O.K., who pays his team well, but promises death for failure and disloyalty, assigns them with the task of murdering a black druid. This puts them in direct conflict with Thor throughout the majority of the story.

While the conflict between Thor and Gwenpool was the highlight of the issue, its conclusion is mildly unsatisfying. In an attempt to distract Thor, Gwen tries to remember her first name. She fumbles through her thought process ("She's, uh, played by Natalie Portman…") in a way that manages to both reinforce the central concept behind her character while also making her relatable. As a fan of comic books trapped in the comic book world, that is the train of thought that is to be expected. When she lands on the name and distracts Thor, who explains that she is defending the druid because he is the only person capable of healing an entire elven colony that has fallen prey to an aggressive plant growth. Gwen takes advantage of the time given by this explanation to use her feet to operate a rocket launcher, killing her mark. If she failed, M.O.D.O.K. would have vaporized her. This creates a massive degree of possibility for exploring Gwenpool's morality. These aren't real people to her; they exist entirely within a fictional text. Despite this, she genuinely mourns Cecil's death from Unbelievable Gwenpool #1. It is a lasting scar that affects the way she has been maneuvering through this universe. Would she not, then, view the condemning to death of the elven colony that Thor is desperately trying to protect as a meaningful death as well? Don't the characters in this world experience loss and grief in the same way that she does?

Just kidding. The story bails on this notion as the Terrible Eye and Mega Tony manage to combine abilities and turn the black druid's magic into a chemical compound. Everybody wins. In a lot of ways, exploring that darker undercurrent of post-modern texts is antithetical to what Unbelievable Gwenpool is as a series. Every story involving Gwenpool has been a cartoon-like, absurdist fairy tale. Everything has been lively and energetic, but with an undercurrent of glee and joy. Even Cecil's tragic death at the end of the last issue was played to a darkly comic affect. It was M.O.D.O.K. that committed the act. While exploring the particular nuance that the narrative opened itself up to would have been interesting, this might not have been a Gwenpool story if it did, and having Gwen become a Thor villain would have created some dissonance when reading Thor's own comic books. Still, it feels like fight with Thor wraps up a little too neatly.

Gurihiru's art is still perfectly in sync with what this title is. The colors manage to find a perfect balance between pleasing and striking and the art itself manages to be just rounded and cartoon-like enough to contribute to the tone while not alienating comic book fans. At times, it reminds me of a cross between Pendleton Ward and Jhonen Vasquez. The style is so in tune with what the story is, as well as the overall aesthetic of the character that it's nearly impossible to imagine the art any other way. ­

Earlier I mentioned the gleefulnes s and joyfulness that runs throughout every Gwenpool story to date. This is the greatest strength of the series, the character, and this title. As a fan of comic books, it is difficult to not feel happy as you read through the pages. The whole ordeal is so clearly the result of people who enjoy what they are doing and who are happy doing it. It becomes infectious as you read, and ultimately justifies giving the character her own series. Before reading the first issue, many people had issues with giving Gwenpool her own series. Unbelievable Gwenpool exists because of how comic book fans responded so positively to her use as a joke on a cover and in the periphery of our comic experience. Beyond the character, the entire concept of Unbelievable Gwenpool creates this sense of happiness by being both a product of the fan community and a product for the fan community.

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