Best Shots Reviews: MIGHTY THOR #9, ACTION COMICS #960, BLACK PANTHER #4

"Black Panther #4" variant cover by Sanford Greene
Credit: Sanford Greene (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

The Mighty Thor #9
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Russell Dauterman and Matt Wilson
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Sometimes it’s good to be the bad guy.

Don’t get me wrong — Jane Foster continues to impress as The Mighty Thor, but Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman let their villains steal the show with their latest issue. With business-mogul-turned-Minotaur Dario Agger kidnapped by some equally murderous corporate raiders, this issue takes the traditional hero-versus-villain battling and injects some wicked fun into the mix.

While Aaron has given Jane some fun tension with her ex-boyfriend’s current squeeze, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Roz Solomon, the highlight of this issue has to be the bad guys that Thor has to fight: namely, the Silver Samurai and Oubliette Midas, whose countless riches and terrifying weaponry give them an unmistakable swagger even in the face of bloodthirsty monsters and a legendary Uru hammer. While the Silver Samurai provides a nice counterpoint against Thor - a fight between technology versus antiquity, sword versus hammer, as two legacy characters try to forge their own destinies in the iconic Marvel universe - Aaron really evokes that Grant Morrison stylishness with Oubliette, who riffs off fun dialogue like, “My father was an irradiated sadist who named me after an instrument of torture and raised me to be his personal murder doll. Do you really think I’m a stranger to pain?”

It’s these bits of panache that really elevate Aaron’s script, which structurally is standard, if run-of-the-mill superhero action. Part of that is just because we’re in the second chapter of an arc - Aaron bounces around between a number of subplots, ranging from the Samurai’s plot to Darrio Agger’s kidnapping to lower-key bits like Loki pining over his comatose mother to a pair of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents hunting down the new Thor’s identity. The thing is, they’re each well-constructed and necessary, as a whole can make for a somewhat disjointed read. It’s also a testament to Aaron’s skills at finding compelling villains that Jane and Roz wind up becoming the least interesting parts of the entire book - there are bits of humor dispersed in their dialogue, like Jane telling Roz that the Samurai is like Iron Man, if Iron Man was “about to be bludgeoned repeatedly with a hammer,” but beyond their awkwardness as the Odison’s previous and current girlfriends, they come across as reactive compared to the rest.

But I will say, having Russell Dauterman back on this series is superb, and shows just how much energy he brought to The Mighty Thor as a whole. While the last issue felt a bit more grounded in terms of his settings, with this issue, Dauterman and colorist Matt Wilson get to really sink their teeth into some fun locales here, like a supervillain base inside of a half-submerged glacier, or a solid gold private jet filled with torture devices and a gang of Mindless Ones. Dauterman’s greatest strength with this series, of course, has to be the way he draws Thor launching Mjolnir right at us, with one of the more clever visual bits being a three-panel sequence of the Silver Samurai getting smacked down by the runaway hammer. But Dauterman also plays up Aaron’s fun beats, such as a panel of Thor and the Silver Samurai leaping at one another with wuxia-style poses, or the shadowy Oubliette cocking her head at Agger as she taunts him mercilessly.

The art of writing superhero comic books is taking familiar structures and applying some unique spins - and in that regard, I’d say The Mighty Thor #9 succeeds, giving this series a shot in the arm thanks to the voices of its villains. While the idea of a hero having to save a villain to stop even greater disaster is not a new one, there is plenty to like about this issue, and I can only hope that in future installments, Aaron and Dauterman are able to give their hero just as much madcap energy as they do her adversaries.

Action Comics #960
Action Comics #960
Credit: DC Comics

Action Comics #960
Written by Dan Jurgens
Art by Tyler Kirkham and Ulises Arreola
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Things get personal this month in Action Comics #960. While still hampered by his mystery box approach to its opening arc, Dan Jurgens injects some energy into his script with a well-timed Wonder Woman appearance. Jurgens also does us one better by raising the stakes of the title: pointing the rampaging Doomsday toward Clark’s family, taking us outside the city limits of Metropolis and away from the woodenness of the second Clark Kent. Artists Tyler Kirkham and Ulises Arreola are still delivering great displays of superheroics and lovingly rendered vistas of destruction and rural beauty, keeping the title’s streak of great visuals intact. This issue isn’t quite at the level it needs to be yet, but Action Comics #960 is a step in the right direction.

Facing a titanic stalemate in previous issues, Superman gets some much-needed help this week in the form of Diana of Themyscira and her trusty buckler and blade. Unconcerned with the mystery of the new depowered Clark (like many readers at this point), Jurgens quickly throws her into the fray and makes the most of her co-starring appearance. Jurgens uses her fighting prowess to great success here, but he also takes advantage of her innate kindness once things slow down in the back half of the issue, as she accompanies Superman to find his family and shares a few poignant moments with Jon and his Lois Lane. It’s ironic that it takes Wonder Woman to finally show an emotional core to Action Comics, but it’s a welcome development in order to connect it to readers.

Also playing into the emotional side of this book is Jurgens’ decision to take the fight to the hidden Jon and Lois, making use of Doomsday’s ability to hunt Kryptonians. Of course the actual hunting is teased for next month’s issue, but the mere idea of Doomsday tracking down Jon and Lois makes for some much-needed tension for a title that has been unsteady since its debut. Jurgens taking Doomsday out of Metropolis and into the countryside also allows him to thin out his cast a bit. Setting Lex, Jimmy, and the faux Clark Kent aside for the time being allows Jurgens to focus on what has been working for the title so far, rather than shoehorning in more “clues” or heated banter between the two Men of Tomorrow. While I would have liked this focus and emotion to come a lot sooner for the title, Action Comics #960 shows that it at least is in the cards and can be hopefully be deployed again in the future.

Though Dan Jurgens is still finding his feet with Action Comics, artist Tyler Kirkham and colorist Ulises Arreola are still delivering confident, dynamic visuals and living up to the title’s name. Though this month’s efforts are bit rougher around the edges, Kirkham and Arreola adapt well to the shifting visual settings of the bone-crunching, debris-filled battle in Metropolis and the sun-drenched rural countryside. Kirkham and Arreola also once again deliver a soaring double-page splash to kick off this month’s issue, giving us a smirking Wonder Woman scooping up the depowered Clark Kent from the wrath of Doomsday in a cheeky inversion of the usual damsel-in-distress visual. It may not reach the same vintage comic heights as its sister title Superman, but Tyler Kirkham and Ulises Arreola keep Action Comics kinetic and uniformly fun to look at.

With the battle headed toward Clark’s home and hearth and a welcome co-starring role for the breakout star of San Deigo Comic Con, Action Comics #960 keeps the spark alive for the floundering Superman title. Dan Jurgens doesn’t hit a bullseye with this newest issue, but he comes close, which is much better than his previous, very dry and overcrowded efforts. This new focus and heart coupled with the dynamism of Tyler Kirkham and Ulises Arreola get Action Comics #960 closer to the solid superhero adventure we all know it can and should be.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Black Panther #4
Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Art by Brian Stelfreeze, Laura Martin, and Matt Milla
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Oftentimes, one’s greatest strength is also the source of one’s greatest weakness. In a way, the same is true of Black Panther #4. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, artist Brian Stelfreeze and colorists Laura Martin and Matt Milla do a stellar job bringing the world of Wakanda to the page with lifelike complexity, but at times this same complexity feels like a weight slowing the story down.

At the heart of Black Panther #4 is the multifaceted way in which Coates tackles power structures in Wakanda, and the human beings that maintain or challenge them. Coates has taken the time to build his characters, so whether it’s a revealing meeting between Ramonda and the philosopher Changamire or Tetu’s attempt at an alliance with the renegade Dora Milaje, there’s a constant sense of human struggle within the confines of their socio-political power structures.

The highlight of the issue is an emotional conversation between T’Challa and his stepmother, Ramonda. They speak candidly about T’Challa’s position as king, and how he might best face his opponent. Ramonda is quick to remind him that the real obstacle he faces is not an outside threat, but earning the love of his subjects. T’Challa makes note of the personal sacrifices he has made in the name of his nation, before Ramonda tells him, “Your people are a burden to you, and you have never let them forget this.”

This statement gets at the heart of Coates’ take on T’Challa, but to longtime fans of the character, it is also a stark contrast to the strong bond seen between king and country shown in previous runs. However, Coates seems to be addressing a particular conundrum in the mythos of the character. Since Don McGregor’s run on Jungle Action, T’Challa has faced numerous coup attempts from within Wakanda. When looking separately at each series, these insurrections appear as isolated incidents, but when looked at as a continuous whole, a picture of a violently dissatisfied nation appears. Addressing that divide must now be his top priority.

Brian Stelfreeze, meanwhile, makes some fantastic decisions in staging his scenes, particularly one with T’Challa and Ramonda speaking on a skyscraper balcony, putting them literally among the clouds. Even in the panels that take a bird’s-eye view of the scene, only the surrounding skyscrapers can be seen, visual evidence to Wakanda’s wealth, but highlighting the divide between T’Challa and the people below him. Stelfreeze’s design of the balcony itself is telling: no physical barriers protect T’Challa or Ramonda from being swept off by a gentle breeze, hinting at their physical confidence. At the same time, the balcony at times recalls a plank, with T’Challa walking to the edge of it.

This detail and thematic depth shows up throughout the issue in Stelfreeze’s art. Changamire’s library is a treasure trove for those readers seeking out additional material, while the placement of a local woman between the Midnight Angels and Tetu during their meeting highlights the larger conflict as the people try to choose who to follow. The colors by Laura Martin and Matt Milla add even more to the complexity. Towards the end of the issue, Ramonda’s wardrobe shifts in color from the royal purples to an orange garb similar to the one worn by Changamire. Meanwhile, Martin’s palette for Wakanda’s cityscapes is varied, but cold, suggesting a distance, while the scenes on the outskirts of Wakanda are often basked in more vivid tones.

Black Panther #4 is rich in moral complexity, Coates gives his characters powerful motivations, and the lines between hero and villain are quite blurred here. Readers may just as readily root for Aneka and Ayo or Tetu and Zenzi as readily as they do for T’Challa. The issue ends on T’Challa in a moment that can be read as heroic assertiveness or a slip into darkness. Either way, it’s a powerful end to the issue.

But this same complexity also leads to the issue’s flaws. While Black Panther #4 serves as the conclusion to this opening arc, it doesn’t have quite the impact one would expect. The issue’s dialogue feels more like buildup to a conflict as opposed to the resolution to any particular story. Within the larger plans for the series, this makes sense, but it would have been nice to have a minor conflict or subplot developed and resolved within this opening arc.

All told, Black Panther #4 is an engaging read, even if it isn’t completely satisfactory. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin have crafted a layered world that asks readers to question the structures that have been in place since the inception of the titular hero. However to maintain momentum, future issues of Black Panther must begin answering these questions or else the title may find itself spinning its philosophical wheels.

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