Best Shots Review: BLACK PANTHER - WORLD OF WAKANDA #1, ALL-STAR BATMAN #4, More

"All-Star Batman #4" preview
Credit: Declan Shalvey (DC Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

Black Panther: World of Wakanda #1
Written by Roxane Gay, Yona Harvey, and Ta-Nehisi Coates
Art by Alitha E. Martinez, Rachelle Rosenberg, Afua Richardson and Tamra Bonvillain
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Spinning out of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s take on the king of Wakanda, Black Panther: World of Wakanda #1 tells the story of several characters who have played influential roles in the main book. But with a team of writers that are new to the comic book medium, there has been some questioning as to how the book’s quality would fare. Fortunately, everyone is up to the task, with a very talented art team tackling King T'Challa's kingdom.

The main portion of Black Panther: World of Wakanda #1 is centered on the training of the Dora Milaje, and specifically the meeting of Ayo and Aneka. Roxane Gay handles the scripting duties here, and does well with handling the love story. Some will be put off by her use of thought bubbles, but it’s a nice throwback to bygone eras of comic books and serves the narrative well. Make no mistake about it, this story of Ayo and Aneka is a love story as the two characters find themselves quickly enamored with one another and struggle with their feelings. Is the internal monologue, “She is nothing to me. The softness of her skin is nothing to me. Her eyes are nothing to me,” melodramatic and cheesy? Yes, but appropriately so. The whole story feels like a callback to Stan Lee’s handling of Peter Parker’s love life or Chris Claremont’s acclaimed run on Uncanny X-Men. While some readers will surely be disappointed by the lack of focus on the Dora Milaje training process itself, that’s not what this book is.

The artwork by Alitha Martinez is perfect for the story. Nuanced facial expressions help tell the story of flirtation and romance, from the way a young Ayo questions Aneka’s instructions to the way Aneka falls into distress once she acts on her feelings. And while the issue’s primary objective is a love story, these are still warriors and Martinez ensures that they look it. When Ayo and Aneka spar Martinez uses motion lines and kinetic poses to convey not just speed, but skill, and seemingly taking moves from a variety of real-world martial arts that make the fighting more visceral. Rachelle Rosenberg’s colors work particularly well for this story; the vibrant palette of reds and greens and purples give the story an lively feel that heightens the emotions the characters go through.

The back-up story shifts gears by telling the story of Zenzi, one of the antagonists in Black Panther. Scripted by Yona Harvey and Ta-Nehisi Coates, it builds on the Wakandan history Coates is developing in the main title. Zenzi’s status as a Nigandan immigrant into Wakanda highlights some of the prejudices Wakandans have toward their neighbors. The artwork here is handled by Afua Richardson and colorist Tamra Bonvillain. Richardson’s artwork is absolutely stunning, capturing the day-to-day life of a woman who has tried to maintain hope in the face of prejudice, torture, and war. Richardson gives Zenzi a quiet rage that builds as she is consistently dehumanized by the people around her. The design work too works well, the clothing here takes influence from Stelfreeze’s art in the main book, but there is an element of ruggedness that suggests a national border that is neither peaceful nor well defined. Bonvillain utilizes a less saturated palette than Rosenberg does in the main story, giving Zenzi’s journey a nice contrast with the preceding portion focusing on the Dora Milaje. This helps highlight the bleakness of her situation and emphasizes an idea of there being a Wakandan populace that has been failed by the monarchy in place.

Whether focusing on a blossoming romance or the tale of a refugee, it’s hard to understate how important Black Panther: World of Wakanda #1 feels in today’s world, especially given the results of the election. However, separated from that context, this is still a solid comic book that develops the personal history of characters that factor heavily into Wakanda’s present crisis. While World of Wakanda #1 is still a satellite book, it presents its characters in such a way that makes one look forward to what comes next.

Credit: John Romita Jr. (DC Comics)

All-Star Batman #4
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by John Romita, Jr., Declan Shalvey, Danny Miki, Dean White and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The thing about All-Star Batman is that since it's seemingly outside of DC's core "Rebirth" story, Scott Snyder and his absolutely killer art team can go as grounded or as Bat-bananas as they want. In this Two-Face story “My Own Worst Enemy,” plays up the duality of both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent and the figures they’d later become, but it’s the greater entity of Gotham City that unites them in their early struggles.

Snyder’s Batman run is considered one of greatest of all time, owing not just to Batman and his arch-foes, but Snyder's deeper themes about how Gotham can either build you or break you. In this case, we see that Harvey and Bruce, much like in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight are really two sides of the same coin.

Having explored origins of his other great rogues, Snyder concentrates on Two-Face here, having a young Harvey and Bruce share a similar upbringing within the confines of a rebuilt Arkham Asylum that is used a housing unit for troubled youths. While it might seem a bit coincidental at face value, it goes back to the idea that Gotham has a hold on its citizens and decides which ones to raise up and which ones to tear down. Unlike Snyder’s earlier attempts such as his retelling of Mr. Freeze’s origin, Bruce’s relationship with Harvey seems organic here and doesn’t feel like it deviates too much from what most readers consider canonical. It’s a deeper look inside the young boys who would later be defined by their adult lives.

It does get a bit extreme, though. We’ve seen Snyder take Batman to his absolute limit and bring him down to our paltry human levels, but he’s starting to take a page out of Grant Morrison’s book where he’s turning Bruce into a borderline demigod. It works here, as he trudged through not only Harvey's scheming, but the Court of Owls as well as a pile-on by the KGBeast. Batman may be tough as nails, but Snyder ramps up the bad guys in this hard-hitting gauntlet that Batman finds himself endlessly running through.

The three-man tag-team of Romita, Miki, and White essentially reinvents what we think of when we collectively think of a "standard" Batman title. Gone is neon-noir palette of FCO and replaced with a sharper scheme that’s equal parts Batman ‘66 and Batman: The Animated Series, with the reds and greens cranked up to 11. Having worked with Romita in the past, White has a strong grasp on the linework that makes everybody look good in the process. From the opening scene with Two-Face pouring acid on Batman’s face to all the crazy kinetic action going on, it all looks like the Batman action movie we deserve. It does feel claustrophobic on some pages, but the detail that Romita and Miki are able to extract more than makes up for it.

Following up such an explosive team is Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire pulling out all of their stops to not just make you invested in the future career of Duke Thomas as the newest addition to the Bat-family, but to also show how a life behind the mask is ill-fitted for the weak-willed. Although he doesn’t share the lineage of the Robins, he’s on his way to being one of the best aides that Batman needs for this generation. The showdown between the newly-named Lark and the twisted Zsasz ends more of a candle being snuffed than the fireworks I had expected, but it’s still effective at fleshing out his character.

All-Star Batman continues to deliver a reestablishment of the mythology of this almost century-old character with Snyder evolving him, but keeping his roots more grounded this time around. The shock value of Batman being tortured has been something that Snyder keeps going back to, with each time getting more and more out there. While that concept has started to show its age, it’s the strength that Snyder gives to these characters even when their scar tissue reminds us that not all wounds heal the same.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #1
Written by Gerry Conway, Anthony Holden and Kate Leth
Art by Ryan Stegman, Anthony Holden, Marguerite Sauvage and Sonia Oback
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

In television, they say that for first season shows, characters are invited into the homes of their viewers as guests. But after a second season and beyond, viewers fall in love with those characters, and wind up embracing them as expected members of the family.

Now multiply that by 50 years, and you understand the appeal of a character like Peter Parker. We’ve had generations grow up with him, watch his trials and tribulations, witness his greatest victories and most heartbreaking defeats. Peter Parker is the kind of character that many people don’t just root for, but actively want to see happy - and they’re going to get their wish with Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #1, a touchingly written and dynamically-drawn debut from veteran Spider-storytellers Gerry Conway and Ryan Stegman.

Opening with an energetic introduction as Spidey dodges the lightning-fast tail of the Scorpion, Conway and Stegman prove to be a dream team - while Stegman dazzles with Spider-Man’s acrobatic choreography, Conway makes it resonate with readers immediately, as Peter mentally recounts his grocery list before racing home to respond to a “Code Green” (a.k.a., his daughter being asleep so he can spend some “alone time” with Mary Jane). But that’s the whole basis of this book, a sweetness that makes Renew Your Vows so compelling - this is Peter living his happily domestic life, with his wife Mary Jane and his daughter Annie. It’s that dynamic that gives the book its heart and soul - even beyond Parker Industries, having a family is Peter Parker coming full circle from being the orphaned target of bullies to being happy, hearty and whole.

But it’s not all about family breakfasts or taking care of family pets (although Annie’s precocious musings about turtle dietary restrictions is adorable) - jumping off Secret Wars' original Renew Your Vows series, Mary Jane and Annie are quick to get in on the Spider-action as well. Similar to the family-oriented spin on Superman, Renew Your Vows has Peter tag-teaming with MJ and Annie in some very fun ways, ranging from MJ swinging in to save her hubby from a pack of Mole Man henchmen, or Annie executing a high-flying flip to catch a wayward pancake. They’re great, fun characters that have associated with our hero, and seeing Peter Parker happy is, in many ways, contagious.

And that’s not even discussing Ryan Stegman’s artwork. This is some of the strongest work I’ve seen him do in years, with a particular cleanliness to his rendering that at times evokes an old-school Todd McFarlane energy but never at the cost of his character designs. This is so important to not just keeping Peter and MJ from appearing old, but to have Annie look like an actual kid - something that’s so important to making this brand-new character actually likable. Stegman also excels with the dramatic moments in this book - whether it’s a raging dinosaur on the loose, Peter and MJ sneaking a kiss in the darkness or Annie having an unfortunate accident with a web-shooter, there are tons of memorable visuals to this book. Sonia Oback also feels like the perfect colorist for Stegman's linework, giving the characters a nice depth and weight while still maintaining a nice sense of energy. The only downside is MJ and Annie’s costumes are still a little less-than-iconic looking, especially when placed alongside Spidey’s one-of-a-kind design - I’m not sure if these were his doing, but I’m hoping Stegman will have the opportunity to tinker with the outfits as the series progresses.

Meanwhile, the issue also has two back-up stories, one featuring Peter and Annie by Anthony Holden, followed by an MJ/Annie team-up by Kate Leth and Marguerite Sauvage. Holden’s story is about as cute as it gets, given that Peter’s sense of humor meshes well with Annie’s precociousness - it’s perhaps not a surprise that Spidey would be a trickster as a father just as much as a superhero, letting Annie play with a confused Sandman while he runs errands, or hiding the whole caper from Mary Jane. (And Holden’s artwork is just adorable, reminding me a bit of a sketchier version of Mingjue Helen Chen.) Leth and Sauvage’s backup featuring Mary Jane doesn’t quite connect with me as much, in part because the story circles around the design of MJ’s new Spider-suit without actually actually showing us the costume, never allowing Sauvage to try her hand with it. Additionally, Leth’s story featuring a random attack by the Rhino doesn’t seem to have a strong theme or direction, making that backup feel a little forgettable despite some strong art.

While many might view entertainment as a form of escapism, it’s also a matter of relationships - both the relationships inside of the story, as well as the bonds formed between the characters and the readers themselves. Peter Parker is the kind of character that’s easy to root for because he’s easy to love, and watching this hard-luck hero get to make good on his personal life is something that inspires hope in all the imperfect Spider-Man readers in the world. If Conway and Stegman can continue their rock-solid work, Renew Your Vows is going to be an easy commitment for Spider-fans everywhere.

Credit: Titan Comics

The Mummy: Palimpsest #1
Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Ronilson Freire and Ming Sen
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Titan Comics/Hammer Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Titan Comics' Hammer line makes an appropriately weird debut with The Mummy: Palimpsest #1. Scripted by noted purveyor of the strange Peter Milligan, this first issue takes a simple monster story and broadens it into a story about class and power, both on the material and supernatural plane. Artist Ronilson Freire and colorist Ming Sen ply the pages with interesting monster designs and an eye for character expressions along with chalky, almost grainy colors, instantly conjuring the memory of catching a Hammer movie on late night cable. The Hammer aesthetic is a very specific one, both in narrative and in visuals, but I am happy to report that the company’s first foray into comics delivers it in spades.

Right from the start Peter Milligan is playing with reader’s expectations. Opening with a ghoulish ceremony to contact an ancient god, Milligan plays everything deadly straight, presenting this story as some sort of twisted historical epic. But then the turn comes, and Milligan reveals that this arcane work isn’t happening hundreds of years ago, it is happening now in the heart of London. We are introduced to Clarence and Mather, two wealthy Londonites, who have dedicated their lives to this bloody cause, no matter the cost. And from there, Milligan keeps the hits coming.

A quick time jump and we see the pair’s plan has come no closer to fruition and the scope of their operation has grown considerably. It is here that Milligan introduces us to the title’s real lead, Angel, a woman fond of punching men in the throat and the bearer of a sacred mark tied to the powers Clarence and Mather’s cult is chasing. But more than that, Milligan starts to play with the nature of horror in the back half of the comic. While the natural hook of this being a comic about a mummy delivers, thanks to Angel’s introduction and subsequent connection to the dark power the cult contacts, the positioning of a wealthy cabal of men as the antagonist and Milligan’s pointed mentions of the class system at play in the plot gives this an interesting angle on the monster movie hook. The Hammer canon of films was always finding interesting ways to repackage monsters and horror for audiences; it is refreshing to see that Hammer Comics is continuing that tradition with The Mummy: Palimpsest.

While Peter Milligan delivers the luridly compelling script, artist Ronilson Freire and colorist Ming Sen make this debut look like a issue filled with classic film poster art. Freire’s sketchy and slightly stiff style is perfect for this debut as his rigid panel layouts sell every beat to the back of the house. More than that, he nails the stylized monsters and creature blocking that Hammer is famous for. For example, before Angel’s transformation, she looks and is blocked like a normal woman, albeit one in a dangerous situation. But as soon as the linen wraps go on, Freire contorts her hands into grasping claws and her body stands slightly warped in frames, making her look more ghoulish and more dangerous.

Colorist Ming Sen also revels in the Hammer visual palette, eschewing the neon of the poster art, and making this look like it was production design was done in the sixties. Dark moody greens and browns and heavy shadows dominate most of the pages, but Sen pierces through the glum English moors with blazing golds, haunting greys for Angel’s mummified form, and a ghostly green for the smoky form of the cult’s deity, giving this debut a wide range of colors that congeal into a tonally appealing experience.

Titan Comics gains a big feather in their horror-loving caps with Hammer’s The Mummy: Palimpsest #1. Delivering scares both in the supernatural realm and the all too real London streets, Peter Milligan does the brand proud with an unexpected start to this modern creature feature. The art team of Ronilson Freire and Ming Sen also do their part to make this debut stand out for audiences with a set of pages that stands this comic up against classics like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Dracula A.D. 1972. Rich in tone and vintage horror thrills, The Mummy: Palimpsest #1 is a dark victory for Titan and Hammer Comics.

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