Best Shots Reviews: ACTION COMICS #958, CAPTAIN AMERICA: SAM WILSON #10, AQUAMAN #1, More

Marvel June 2016 cover
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Action Comics #958
Written by Dan Jurgens
Art by Patrick Zircher and Ulises Arreola
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

We're two issues into DC's "Rebirth," and it's already doomsday for the Man of Steel. DC's oldest title acclimatizes to a twice-monthly schedule with Action Comics #958, a pulse-pounding issue that truly lives up to its name. Despite some well-choreographed and exciting action sequences, Dan Jurgens' old-school dialogue comes across as a little clumsy, and while Patrick Zircher's artwork is perfectly adept at steel-rending chaos, it is less suited for scenes that hinge on expression and drama.

Dan Jurgens and Patrick Zircher continue the high-octane spirit of last issue's introductory issue. “Questions will have to wait,” narrates Superman in #958’s opening scenes as Doomsday charges through the panel, but Jurgens' Action Comics thrives on questions. From the seemingly powerless Clark Kent at street level to the hooded figure orchestrating the chaos, Jurgens is determined to pique the reader's curiosity with constant hints at something bigger. It's the driving force behind an otherwise simple super-powered punch-fest, and the extended mystery shouldn’t frustrate considering the speedy release schedule.

If anyone can write a solid Doomsday story, it's the co-creator of the behemoth himself. Dan Jurgens ups the stakes with a faster, craftier Doomsday than the Man of Steel is used to, threatening Metropolis with sheer brutality. Superman and Lex Luthor grudgingly team up in an enjoyably tense truce to take down Ol’ Stonyface, leading to a vulnerable moment for Lex that successfully makes us actually feel for the bald pretender to Superman’s cape, even if only for a second. Elsewhere, Jurgens brings a different approach to pacing here, freezing the story in place to focus on each set of characters' reactions to a moment in time. It works well enough, inter-cutting Jimmy and “Clark”’s reactions to the war with Lois and Jon watching events unfold at home.

Thrilling plot aside, Jurgens falls afoul to the odd slice of dodgy dialogue this issue. When Lex and Superman team up to take down Doomsday, he hisses through gritted teeth; “We’ll shove this beast down the sewer with the rest of the trash.” “Yeah, but how do you expect to write the story when you're a part of the story!” exclaims Jimmy Olson, while onlookers shout, “We got a front row seat to the fight o’ the century!” The commentating citizens of Metropolis distract the focus of each panel they intrude. A helicopter about to be destroyed hangs perilously close and obviously fragile. When Doomsday heads straight for a train, we all know what’s coming; it’s redundant to hear the train conductor shout “Get us back to the station! This is a war zone!” There’s an element of the 1930s newspaper seller to much of Action Comics #958’s dialogue, and while endearing, its unintentional humor detracts from the tale’s incredibly high stakes.

Zircher renders Doomsday as the craggy and spike-covered beast he should be, a stark contrast to the permanently gleaming Supes and Luthor. He keeps a tight focus on each combatant's face, throwing them at the panel with harsh close-ups of the ugly end of a super-powered blow. As expected from the issue’s content, there’s an incredible amount of screaming, but Zircher struggles to show a wider range of emotion than pure anger. Character’s eyes seem lifeless, which works for Doomsday’s pupil-less crimson eyes but less so for a distressed Jimmy Olson. Still, the sheer spectacle of Metropolis being torn apart plays to Zircher’s strengths, and the sheen applied by colorist Ulises Arreola is appealing. Souped-up Luthor serves as the foundation for an especially attractive use of color; his glowing blue “S” emblem integrating nicely with the regal purple of his power armor.

Action Comics #958 is a high-impact book with simple aspirations. Jurgens and Zircher are content to fill their 20 pages with gorgeous, wide action sequences; undoubtedly taking advantage of the faster pace afforded by Action's twice-monthly publishing schedule. It's the kind of issue that makes you feel like a kid, sprawled out on the comic book-covered sofa, too engrossed in four-color fun to listen to your mom telling you to tidy the place up. Although Dan Jurgens' writing style shows its age here and Patrick Zircher’s vacant expressions often make his figures resemble mannequins, this creative team still knows exactly how to weave a thrilling and satisfying single issue.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Captain America: Sam Wilson #10
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Angel Unzueta and Cris Peter
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

”This is what he would have wanted... to be with his family.”

In the wake of James Rhodes’ death in the line of duty, Captain America: Sam Wilson #10 delivers a stirring eulogy for the fallen hero that highlights the importance of representation in superhero comic books. Nick Spencer, using Civil War II as backdrop, brings the superhero community together to lay War Machine to rest. Artist Angel Unzueta helps shoulder the weight of this story with emotive renderings of the massive gathering of the African-American, Latino and Muslim communities and their superhero avatars, bolstering Spencer’s core theme of representation. The Marvel Universe may be at war, but Captain America: Sam Wilson #10 reunites it momentarily in grief while pushing an important conversation about comics as a whole to the forefront.

Spencer’s inclusive thesis, voiced by Misty Knight punctuated by her trademark sarcasm, is laid out quickly, but not in a way that makes it sound like she is spouting raw ideology. Through Misty, who stands as a fantastic messenger both as a major female of color and a well-loved co-star, the script explicitly details the new Captain America’s importance to both the superhero world as well as the POC community as a whole. Comparing Sam’s journey from sidekick to legacy hero to Rhodey’s stint as Iron Man, Spencer will win you over with Wilson’s arresting speech, standing before the masses assembled outside of Rhodey’s hometown church in Philadelphia. “He did inspire us,” Sam says, “I know he inspired me.”

But one has to address the ugly lurking elephant in the room that always rears its head when more than three African-American superheroes stand in a room together: Captain America: Sam Wilson #10 is emphatically not a “Black Avengers” story. That kind of subtle racism is only be reductive to the story and characters, but also misses Spencer’s point. Instead, Captain America: Sam Wilson #10 celebrates each character’s race, and how they stand as inspirations for thousands of people of color all across the world who see these heroes and think, “That could be me.” A story like this could, in a worst-case scenario, read as ham-fisted and preachy — and it does get close with Spencer’s B-story bookends, which I’ll get into in a bit — but Spencer’s respect for the characters, their heritage, and impact on both the fictional and real world keeps the emotional connection strong.

But with that in mind, he doesn’t exactly curtail the unavoidable blowback by framing this issue with giant, jackbooted Americops attacking black men in the streets and the thudding reintroduction of one-time New Warrior Rage. These frames will surely arm detractors with plenty more ammo to snipe at his politically charged storytelling and both seriously clash with the story found between them. Though the plight of the African-American public and the death of a high-profile black superhero is not something to take lightly, especially in the face of numerous “fridgings” and rising racial tension, Spencer presents the important and timely core story with humor, heart and grace, despite his clunky framing.

Hammering home that impact is penciler Angel Unzueta. Understandably shelving his usual energy, Unzueta adapts to Spencer’s emotional script and even works to strengthen its heaviest moments. As Sam takes the podium, facing hundreds of people shown as an aerial shot splash page of the church, Unzueta cuts throughout to the downcast faces of POC heroes like a Doctor Voodoo, Nick Fury and a tearful (and heartbreaking) Kamala Khan taking in Sam’s words. With the same technique, he also features the civilian crowd, highlighting their loss too, showing a community that has lost a son, not just a hero. Cris Peter’s colors, however, prove a mark in the loss column for the issue. Her obscuring of each background with hazy grays, whites and ambers in order to keep the reader’s eye focused on the character featured is a great choice, but her colors in the rest of the issue smother Unzueta’s pencils with muddy watercolors and bleak shadows. This misstep with the coloring, aside Captain America: Sam Wilson #10 shows that this art team is willing to put emotion first when asked.

While unessential for the ongoing narrative, aside from the tonally incorrect plot exposition, Captain America: Sam Wilson #10's importance as emotional catharsis and an example of the power of POC-led stories cannot be denied. Strides toward more widespread representation have been made in the last few years, but there are still many miles to go for the medium. That said Captain America: Sam Wilson shows that Nick Spencer, Angel Unzueta and Cris Peter are committed to promoting change by delivering heartfelt, respectful stories that add to the ongoing conversation.

Credit: DC Comics

Aquaman #1
Written by Dan Abnett
Art by Brad Walker, Andrew Hennessey and Gabe Eltaeb
Lettering by Pat Brosseau
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Who’s laughing now?

Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve thought it, too. Arthur Curry — he’s a dude who can speak to fish. His power is to swim real fast. He wears an orange shirt. He’s nobody’s favorite, everybody’s punchline.

So believe me when I say, I’m just as surprised as you are that Aquaman might be my favorite DC book right now. Hot off the heels of his Aquaman: Rebirth issue, Dan Abnett and Brad Walker zero in on the conflicts that drive this man of two worlds, and deliver an action-packed but ultimately character-driven first issue that might prove to be a high water mark for DC’s "Rebirth" initiative as a whole.

Of course, Abnett knows that Aquaman is kind of a tough sell, and that’s why it’s so heartening to see him really digging deep and bringing context to the world around Arthur Curry. Sure, Arthur as a character is a little stoic, a little underdeveloped still in terms of intrinsic, interesting qualities — but no superhero is an island, and Abnett informs a lot of Arthur’s characterization by the people in his orbit. The biggest draw in this book is Arthur’s wife, Mera, who not only lends some likability to Aquaman himself, but helps draw into focus the mainthrough line of this book — that Arthur is looking to unite his dual heritages, and, in his words, “secure acceptance and understanding before it’s too late.” It’s a theme that’s gone back in superhero comic books as early as the first issues of X-Men, but Abnett doubles down by having this tie so deeply into Aquaman’s self-actualization as a whole.

But with that kind of broad, sweeping mandate, it’s easy to get lost — and that’s why Abnett continues to anchor his story at every turn with strong bits of characterization. As readers are brought to the coastal Atlantean embassy known as Spindrift, we’re quickly introduced to characters like sardonic reporter Ray Delane or the charmingly nervous Lieutenant Joanna Stubbs of the Royal Navy, who immediately develops a fun chemistry with Atlantean guardsman Sark. By populating his story with engaging characters at the get-go, the stakes are immediately higher when Aquaman’s arch-foe Black Manta makes his inevitable attack, with a degree of precision and brutality that evokes Grant Morrison’s introduction of Prometheus way back in the pages of JLA. All mixed together, Abnett has delivered a breezy but potent debut issue, one that rewards readers of the Rebirth one-shot but doesn’t penalize people who are looking to get in on the ground floor.

Another welcome addition to the team is artist Brad Walker, whose enthusiasm for the characters is apparent from the get-go. This is very clearly an artist who feels affection for his characters — watching Arthur and Mera casually drink coffee on their lighthouse balcony feels like a relaxed early morning moment any couple might have, down to the queen giving her husband a peck on the shoulder. Watching Stubbs and Sark grin at each other during their first meeting might be the highlight of the book to me, because it shows that Walker has the nuance to nail these very endearing, human moments, which will sell readers just as much as any bit of smart exposition. But Walker also nails the action sequences — I love the composition he brings when Black Manta attacks, with the villain really stealing the show with how dynamic he looks.

That said, Walker does occasionally go a bit overboard in terms of his rendering — while Arthur’s pronounced eyelashes wind up making him surprisingly pretty for a mainstream superhero (not that I’m necessarily complaining — given his history, Aquaman needs all the charm he can get!), there are other moments where characters look a bit pinched or unintentionally old thanks to the lines on their faces. Colorist Gabe Eltaeb adds some nice color and bounce to his pages here, although his gradients wind up compounding some of Walker’s excess rendering.

But if you had asked me a year ago if I would find myself looking forward to a run on Aquaman, I’d ask if you had a bridge in Atlantis to sell me — because let’s face it, if it wasn’t for his unique place in history as a founding Justice Leaguer, it’d be difficult to imagine the character lasting the test of time. He’s been mishandled and poorly written more often than not, and that’s why I think it’s so heartening to read Abnett and Walker’s take on him — it’s very much proof positive that there’s no such thing as a bad character, only bad execution. Maybe it’s karmic justice that Arthur Curry has the last laugh after all. But it’s hard not to be excited when you think about the depth of potential in this title — and best of all, Aquaman has only begun to scratch the surface.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Doctor Strange #9
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Chris Bachalo, Mark Irwin, John Livesay, Victor Olazaba, Al Vey, Tim Townsend, Jamie Mendoza and Java Tartaglia
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“I don’t know what I believe anymore.”

“Believe in Stephen Strange. Believe in him until it hurts.”

While the magic is fading a bit with repetition, Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo’s Doctor Strange is still a force to be reckoned with, as Aaron adds some extra complications to his brutal war between black magic and corrupt super-science. Admittedly, there is a hint of decompression here, as Aaron goes back to the same well of sorcerous globetrotting that he did in the previous issue, but he plants just enough seeds to make this chapter a compelling one.

One of the central tenets of Aaron’s run on Doctor Strange is that magic comes at a heavy cost — but while we’ve seen the physical and psychological scars that spellcasting has brought to the Sorcerer Supreme, there are greater tolls than even he has known. Aaron really spends the meat of this issue examining the twin reservoirs for Stephen Strange’s pain, providing a really wonderful contrast about the morality of magic. On the one hand, we meet Wong and his Secret Defenders — a ragtag band of magically-infused refugees who aim to shoulder Stephen’s burden — and with them, Aaron really shows us the best of what humanity can be, highlighting their selflessness and determination with a rousing speech. “We are not swords. We are a shield,” Wong says. “When he is cut, we help him bleed. When his breath grows short, we lend him ours.”

But there’s also something darker lurking in the shadows, as Aaron realizes the moral calculus that comes with welshing on one’s debts — namely, a creature that lives in Stephen’s cellar, a murky dweller composed almost entirely of black sludge and horrific, disembodied mouths. While Aaron introduces this unnamed character in part to add a third party to his already complicated plot, he also does a great job at creating understandable villains — this was a creature who was created from pain, made solely to live his life in suffering and darkness. “What kind of abomination are you?” Empirikul asks. “The angry kind,” the creature replies. But I have a different response entirely — this is kind of creature that’s created when the ends justify the means.

Chris Bachalo, with his entourage of editors and colorists, is a little more inconsistent in terms of the fine details here, but there’s also not a ton of action for him to leverage his kinetic, detail-heavy style. That said, Bachalo finds plenty of foothold with his character designs here, whether that’s the diverse fashion styles of Wong’s Secret Defenders, or the truly creepy look at the creature in the Cellar. While I do think that returning to Strange’s globetrotting adventures feels a little repetitive to the last issue, it’s hard to deny that Bachalo doesn’t make Stephen leaping off a cliff look fun and exciting — that said, however, he does wind up running out of space quickly, with the introduction of Doctor Voodoo and the Phantom Eagle’s magical biplane almost getting lost in the margins. Additionally, the end of the book comes off as almost anticlimactic, because Bachalo has to cram in a frenetic action sequence with a half-dozen characters literally in the span of a single page.

Ultimately, Doctor Strange #9 is a bit of an interstitial chapter, seeding future installments more than serving as a standalone work. But that’s not to say that Aaron has dropped the ball here — everything still rests on a strong foundation of character work, with Stephen Strange taking his first steps towards owning the growing debt that’s been taken by others in his name. Magic is power, but with great power must come great responsibility — and while he’s been as brutal a super villain as any, we’re starting to learn that maybe the Empirikul might not have been so wrong after all about their being a villain in his midst. The Sorcerer Supreme has saved the world countless times, but maybe the cure has been just as bad as the disease — and if that’s the case, the healing has to start at home. With that new twist in mind, Doctor Strange is proving to be some of the most exciting and complex superhero storytelling on the stands today.

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