Best Shots Reviews: CHAMPIONS #4 & CAPTAIN AMERICA: SAM WILSON #17

Marvel Comics January 2017 cover
Credit: Marvel Comics

Heads up, 'Rama Readers! Best Shots is back with a pair of Wednesday reviews highlighting two of Marvel's top titles this week. Let's kick things off with a review of Champions #4 from yours truly!

Credit: Marvel Comics

Champions #4
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba and Edgar Delgado
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

There are a lot of superpowers amongst Marvel’s Champions, but perhaps the most potent ability these kids share is their tremendous likability as both individuals and as a team. Writer Mark Waid and artist Humberto Ramos go beyond just forging a team whose power sets compliment one another — in the spirit of great comics super-teams like the X-Men or the Teen Titans, these Champions fit together magnificently in terms of personalities, backgrounds and points of view, resulting in one of the most engaging and endearing books in Marvel’s catalog.

Part of the Champions charm stems from the kids’ banter, even in the face of seemingly mortal danger. Rather than keeping things oppressive and tense, Waid instead uses adversity as a team-building exercise — when the Champions’ plane is shot down, the team immediately springs into action, from Spider-Man holding the plane together with webbing for Viv Vision to weld shut with her heat vision to Nova acting as a one-man replacement engine for their rapidly descending ride. It’s refreshing to see a team with such natural chemistry, that they can just intuitively coalesce into a single unit, and it speaks to the level of deliberateness Waid brings to his script.

But even outside of the action, Waid works wonders in giving each of his characters a distinct personality and a set role within the dynamic of the team. While Amadeus Cho brings a Hulk-sized ego to the mix (which leads to one of the funnier scene transitions I’ve seen in some time when one of his plans goes tremendously awry), the real stars of the book are Ms. Marvel and Cyclops, who get some great conversations about leadership and about bridging the mutant-Inhuman divide — sentiments that feel all the more inspiring given that they come from youthful characters. In an era of Civil Wars, Infinite Crises and other leaps into comic book cynicism, seeing characters like the Champions exemplifying tolerance and inclusion makes for a refreshing read.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, just so Marvel doesn’t pull him off the book — Humberto Ramos is the perfect artist for Champions, with his fluid and cartoony style portraying these teen characters with such expressiveness. Part of the success of the visuals has to do with the team’s makeup — not only do these characters each have their own unique design to make them stand out, but the Champions’ relatively small roster means that Ramos doesn’t have to hamstring himself with claustrophobic crowd shots. Yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Ramos didn’t make the most of his space here — particularly with the opening sequence, where he’s able to sell small moments like Nova flying out of the crashing plane while still showing Ms. Marvel, Cyclops and Amadeus Cho struggling to keep their bearings. Occasionally Ramos and inker Victor Olazaba will render their characters a bit too sharply, but beyond these hiccups, the youthful energy of this book never subsides.

Marvel’s Young Avengers concept has had plenty of legs since the days of Allan Heinberg, with each new iteration bringing a new theme to the table. Heinberg’s run was about legacy, and about making time-honored traditions your own. Kieron Gillen’s run, meanwhile, was about making your own way as a teenage superhero, rebelling against adults and authority figures on a long and winding road. And that’s the baton that Champions takes on, in spirit if not in name — these kids aren’t looking to prove anything to anyone, nor are they looking to prove anything to themselves. They’re precocious, idealistic and eager to do good — and even though they’ve just met, you can tell this is a team that is already inseparable. So do yourself a favor and read Champions — because this is a team you’re going to want to stick around with for the long haul.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Captain America: Sam Wilson #17
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Paul Renaud and John Rauch
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Tweets were fired. Screengrabs were made. Panels and dialogue were taken out of context and suddenly, writer Nick Spencer is caught in a social media firestorm.

But that's because there’s a lot to unpack in Captain America: Sam Wilson #17. It’s an attempt at parody and satire. It‘s an attempt to sendup the dogmatic nature of just about every argument that’s been had in recent months on Facebook statuses all the way up to the Presidential debates. But it runs into a problem that comics, specifically superhero comics, usually have: the absence of nuance. In aping a point of view without understanding it - as some would argue Spencer also did with his earlier, right wing villains - Spencer's vision of buzzword driven politics amounts to little more than a treatise on confirmation bias. Add to that interior art from Paul Renaud that buckles under the weight of a muddy color palette, and the problems with this issue far outweigh Spencer’s intentions.

The book opens with a Tomi Lahren-type author on a Fox News-type of conservative talk show. She calls into question the new Falcon’s immigrant status, leading Joaquin to head down to her next speaking engagement with the vigilante Rage to give her a piece of his mind. But Falcon and Rage find that there are already protesters at the college and those watching her speech are booing her as well. I don’t think Nick Spencer is trying to make any statement at this point - Falcon and Rage are surprised that something is already being done even if it is “anticlimactic” as one of them mentions. Then the book takes a turn.

Spencer introduces The Bombshells, a team of three college students who are here to “teach you some tolerance.” Unfortunately, throwing grenades doesn’t really jive with that idea, and a battle ensues. That might be Spencer’s way of denouncing extremist PC culture, but it doesn’t work. The Marvel universe is the “World Outside Your Window,” and these characters live in some approximation of our reality. They experience some approximation of our world’s systemic injustices, and that’s felt especially for minority characters. So Spencer doesn’t have absurdity on his side the same way that a book like DC’s Prez did. That book was one of the better sendups of politics recently that was silly in its premise but effective and incisive when criticizing folks on both sides of the aisle. The reason it worked was because it truly showed the absurd nature of politics by proposing an equally absurd concept and running with it.

Spencer attempts to skewer the left a bit here, but the effort quickly derails. The Bombshells are apparently a black woman, a white woman and an Asian man. Whether by gender or race (and in one case both), all three are minorities, and having them shout hamfisted banter filled with social justice buzzwords like “safe space” and “trigger warning” while literally attacking people is just bad optics. I get the joke. They’re accomplishing nothing despite meaning well because they are refusing to remain calm the way that that Rage and Falcon do when they’re met with the situation.

Intended or not, Spencer is laying out the acceptable and unacceptable reactions that minorities should have to any given situation - which is ignorant at best because he has a character throwing a grenade in a crowded auditorium, and offensive at worst because Spencer is talking down to minorities at the same time. In essence, Spencer ends up punching down altogether. Many of the terms used by The Bombshells may be generally misused by folks who don’t fully grasp them but that kind of language isn’t bad or oppressive in and of itself. Activist language exists as a means of educating others and relating ideas that they might not necessarily have a context for. But those are nuanced discussions. Those are not ones had on Facebook wall posts or while throwing grenades. Making light of it and vilifying it the same way that we vilify actual racism and hate speech takes away the ability for those words to do their intended job.

For his part, Paul Renaud shows up to work. I like that Marvel tries to keep some visual consistency in their books, and Renaud is in the vein of Daniel Acuna in that regard. His lines are definitely a bit sharper which subsequently makes his expression work really solid. I’m not the biggest fan of his fight choreography, though. His panel angles and page layouts aren’t confusing, but they feel close and claustrophobic by design. It doesn’t help that John Rauch and Renaud’s coloring is extremely muddy. Moments of great contrast don’t come nearly enough and the palette makes the tone of the book seem much more serious than it needs to be. The visual storytelling is enough to get readers through the book without any issues but the art isn’t much to write home about overall.

We see “social justice warrior” thrown around a lot as an insult. But you know who arguably the most visible social justice warriors in the world are? Superheroes. Unfortunately, when it comes to real world situations with actual stakes, they’re powerless, because you can’t beat those problems into submission. But when you’re coming from a place a privilege, whether that’s working for one of the biggest comic book publishers in the world or not, you have the opportunity to punch up at problems. You have the opportunity to say “I see an injustice here and I might not be able to fix it but I can bring it to light and try to help.” Sometimes that means making art. Sometimes that means making a donation or volunteering. But don’t make it worse. Don’t make it harder. There are a lot of people who don’t agree with The Bombshells in this issue who are going to see their downfall and cheer. They’re going to cheer because of a base misunderstanding of what those words and viewpoints mean.

And unfortunately, comics like Captain America: Sam Wilson #17 make it worse. This book isn’t a sendup of extremism. It punches down at something that tries to help bring clarity and understanding to our world and, in doing so, empowers the rejection of any meaningful dialogue about these ideas. It might be small, but missteps like these make it harder for anyone to do the things that superheroes can’t.

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