Best Shots Reviews: KAMANDI CHALLENGE #1, BLACK PANTHER #10, THE DREGS #1

Marvel Comics January 2017 cover
Credit: Marvel Comics

Face front, 'Rama Readers! If you've got a case of the Mondays, the Best Shots team has got a pick-me-up to kick off your week with a look back at some of last week's top titles. We'll get things underway with a look at DC's Kamandi Challenge #1 from Stately Scott Cederlund.

Credit: DC Comics

Kamandi Challenge #1
Written by Dan Didio and Dan Abnett
Art by Keith Giffen, Scott Koblish, Dale Eaglesham & Hi-FI
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by DC Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

DC Comics has set up an exquisite corpse of a story to celebrate Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday. Over 12 issues, we’ll get 14 creative teams (there are two of them in this first issue and two in the last) who are tasked with resolving the previous creative team’s cliffhanger, write and draw their own story featuring Kamandi, a Kirby creation who is the last boy on Earth, and then craft their own cliffhanger for the next creative team to take care of. So the story here is following the creators of the comics and can they outwit both their predecessors and successors. In the category of everything-old-is-new-again, DC tried this back in the 1980s in what ended up being the ultimately forgettable DC Challenge, but Dan Didio has never been one to let a perfectly serviceable concept lie around unused. Kamandi Challenge #1 is less about the spirit of Jack Kirby and all about the crafting of story by committee that exemplifies mainstream comics today.

As far as story goes, Dan Didio, Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish set the stage for this series about a boy trapped on a futuristic Earth, dominated by animals and where humans are the base creatures of the world. This first story sets up two puzzles left to others to solve. First, Kamandi is raised in some kind of virtual reality world and when he wakes from it, he’s told to find his parents and save the world, but that’s not followed up much yet in the remainder of this issue. More immediately, Didio, Giffen and Koblish set up the first cliffhanger as Kamandi is thrown into a gladiatorial ring to face off against Tiny, a giant, loincloth-wearing ape. Picking up on that cliffhanger, Dan Abnett and Dale Eaglesham really establish this futuristic world, its players and its politics. The first story was a dream that Kamandi had to wake up from, so the second story is the waking world which looks more like the world that Kirby himself created over 40 years ago.

Giffen has always artistically bowed down to the feet of Kirby, and Didio’s story gives him every opportunity to continue his genuflection. Giffen and Koblish actually ease the reader into the world of Kirby as Kamandi’s virtual-reality dream puts him in a small, American town where Kirby himself is a shopkeep along with his longtime inker Mike Royer. Giffen gets to draw the story of a teenager whose world is about to be turned upside-down. At times, Giffen looks more like another Kirby devotee, Erik Larsen, than like Kirby himself. With a looser line than the two of them have really done before, Giffen and Koblish create a very spacious story that gets confusing now and again. The events that lead to the revelation of Kamandi’s actual reality is unclear as something really nebulous crashes through the artificial sky over Kamandi’s head, leaving the reader as confused about events as the main character is.

For the second story, Eaglesham embraces Kirby’s design aesthetic. While Eaglesham has always been more from the school of Neal Adams or John Buscema than from Kirby, everything from the technology that lines the walls of this futuristic society to the prisoner’s garb that they make Kamandi wear all come out of the work of Kirby. Where Giffen seems to be doing his usual Kirby schtick, Eaglesham looks inspired to be working in Kirby’s shadow. His pages in this comic really define the world that this series will be set in and Eaglesham outdoes himself on every page, creating a society where dogs and tigers are the ruling race and Kamandi is the scientific oddity. If DC were willing to forget their basic structural conceit of this series, it would be fantastic to see where Eaglesham could go in continuing to tell stories with Kirby’s creations.

Even as the art ranges from good to really, really good, the two writers of this comic stumble at the beginning of this ambitious project. Dan Didio and Dan Abnett spend a lot of their time searching for their own angles to Kamandi and his challenges and cannot get out of their artists’ ways. Both of them are guilty of overwriting the story and not letting their co-creators tell the story through the images that they draw. In Abnett’s portion of the comic, it’s hard to tell if his writing is providing directions to Eaglesham or if he thinks something in Eaglesham’s art is unclear and it’s up to to the writer to over clarification. For a series that requires both immediate resolution and new conflict with every opening and closing page, it would seem that the writer carries the brunt of the work but both Didio and Abnett’s writing feels clumsy and overdone. Each writer spends too much time telling us about Kamandi and his troubles than working with their artists and showing us the conflict.

But for Kamandi Challenge #1, narrative is secondary to the concept of the story. In some ways, each issue of Kamandi Challenge is about living fast and leaving a beautiful corpse for the next creative team to deal with in 30 days. That seems very anti-Kirby, who was all about creating these rich and grand narratives. He created Kamandi roughly around the same time as he created The Demon and OMAC and after he created the Fourth World saga, all of which are these large worlds that he built up over time in layers, adding narrative block to narrative block to create these concepts that still intrigue and amaze us. Through its artwork, Kamandi Challenge #1 hints at the legacy of Jack Kirby but misses the spirit and chutzpah that Kirby put into each and every page he drew.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Black Panther #10
Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Art by Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, and Laura Martin
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The latest issue of Black Panther is the series’ best, a culmination of the brilliant character work that has defined the series. The artwork by Chris Sprouse, Karl Story and Laura Martin is spectacular and nuanced. However, while Ta-Nehisi’s script here has many moving pieces, the strength of Black Panther #10 does draw attention to the weaknesses of previous issues.

This new volume of Black Panther has eschewed a typical superhero narrative in favor of a deeper political question: how does a monarch quell a populist uprising without resorting to tyranny? Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates brings that question to the forefront here, as a newly revived and empowered Shuri confronts Ayo and Aneka while T’Challa meets with Changamire. Both encounters are relatively nonviolent, though Chris Sprouse and Karl Story are able to show off in a short action sequence that pits the skeptical Midnight Angels against Shuri. There’s an additional motif to this fight, as the technological wings of Ayo’s suit are overwhelmed by the supernatural birds that are part of Shuri’s power. This story has largely avoided speaking on religion directly, but it’s an interesting contrast that perhaps speaks to a larger cultural connection.

In many ways, that subtle detail is representative the creative energy behind this take on the mythos. Part of the charm of the Black Panther canon has been the odd contradictions that have come to define it. Black Panther wants to be a hero, but serves as a king, an odd choice for a government of a technologically advanced nation. Throughout the series, Coates has taken these contradictions head on, exploring what type of man T’Challa is in a way that has made the hero more known emotionally than before. T’Challa has always felt the weight of his crown (the exception being Reginald Hudlin’s run, a well crafted, afro-futuristic homage to the work of Jack Kirby), but Coates has made that existential problem a primary focus, which has at times led to languid pacing and a protagonist that has seemed ineffective (especially for a man who is typically described as being ten steps ahead of his opponent). Coates’ work in Black Panther #10, specifically between Changamire and T’Challa, shows the writer’s growth in this format, and the character feels stronger for it.

Simply put, this meeting between philosopher and king is spectacular. Coates brings in Changamire, a philosopher who has seen his teachings fail in the hands of his former student, and pits him against T’Challa, a king who seeks a solution to the challenge of his rule. The open conversation between the two men gives T’Challa a chance to express his vulnerability in a nuanced way. And yet, T’Challa is still the chess player here, capitalizing on Changamire’s love for Ramonda to bring the philosopher around.

The art team helps to make this scene emotionally riveting. These are two men, sharing a cup of tea, yet Sprouse’s layouts ensure that the tension is palpable. Subtle details show the space between the two men – T’Challa sits at the far end of a couch, his Panther habit protrudes from under his dashiki. When the conversation moves from Changamire’s home to the Necropolis, colorist Laura Martin’s ominous reds contrast with the warmth of the alliance between the two men, providing a visual reminder of the darker coalitions that have been forged there.

It is these subtle details, along with the explorative character work that has made Black Panther an entertaining read. At times, the protagonist’s struggle has been frustrating, how does this mastermind fail to outmaneuver these upstarts? The brilliance of Black Panther #10 is showing that the conflict has never quite been between T’Challa and antagonists Tetu and Zenzi, but rather between T’Challa, the monarch that could swiftly bring the country under his heel, and T’Challa, the man who would lift his people up onto his shoulders.

Credit: Black Mask

The Dregs #1
Written by Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler
Art by Eric Zawadski and Dee Cunniffe
Lettering by Eric Zawadski
Published by Black Mask Studios
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Noir, cannibalism, and vagrancy intersect in Black Mask Studios’ new series The Dregs #1. Set in the titular homeless community as a new drug called Listo sweeps the streets of Vancouver, British Columbia, writers Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler present a classically inspired mystery with a deep, dark core involving the city’s rich who quite literally eat the poor as they work to gentrify the area surrounding the Dregs.

Artist and inker Eric Zawadski and colorist Dee Cunniffe give this debut issue a grounded, yet stylish set of pages, using street layouts, clever visual jokes, and the strange inner workings of series lead Arnold’s mind to give this mystery an indie cinema vibe that suits Thompson’s and Nadler’s paperback crime novel tone very well. Crime comics nowadays are a dime a dozen, but The Dregs #1 finds a new angle on the genre while giving focus to a social issue often unexplored in the medium culminating in a noir experience unlike any other.

Opening with the professional and tightly-blocked journey from street to table for a resident of the Dregs and a quote from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” writers Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler provide a shocking introduction to the world and stakes of The Dregs. While the real hook of this series are its deep roots in crime comics and cannibal horror, Thompson and Nadler don’t take the easy route and make this comic as lurid as possible. Instead the pair, using Arnold as a our point of focus, position gentrification as the real horror of this first issue as a shadowy company slowly but surely erases the neighborhoods around the Dregs in order to turn the area into something respectable and possibly hide their more nefarious dealings.

Though that sort of rich-versus-poor narrative and the cannibalistic elements are present in this first issue,they aren’t nearly as developed as the central mystery and noir elements which are clearly where the writing pair’s real interest lies. A fan of writers like Raymond Chandler and characters like Mike Hammer, Arnold is forced into the position of the Dregs’ local PI after a local clues him in on one his friends being missing for a few days.

This sparks Arnold’s ailed and drug addled mind into his version of detective work which, of course, doesn’t work out well for him by issue’s end. Thompson and Nadler keep Arnold a cypher through this first issue, allowing his drug use and interest in detective stories to be his defining traits, but his willingness to look for his only friend and the frankly insane way that his mind works, given dynamic visual life by Eric Zawadski and Dee Cunniffe, make Arnold precise the kind of tarnished white knight that a story and place like The Dregs needs.

And speaking of Zawadski and Cunniffe, both of them fully commit to the realistic setting, going even so far as to lay actual maps of B.C. streets underneath panels of characters walking those exact same streets. That sort of focus on real world locations gives this debut issue an extra bump in creepiness due to the recognizable backgrounds and settings. The pair also display a sort of cheeky dispassion to the violence at play in The Dregs making the opening scene in which Arnold’s friend is turned into today’s special at a local fancy eatery a hilariously macabre display.

Tightly blocked and set within rigid nine panel grids, Zawadski’s pencils and inks highlight the precise movements of the “butchers” and the drug-induced stupor of the poor man headed to the chopping block before giving way to the sleek and refined kitchen and dining room of the affluent steakhouse. Dee Cunniffe’s colors compliment Zawadski’s rounded pencils and thick inks well, amping up the soured, almost water stained scenes throughout giving this debut the look of a dog eared spinner rack novel that perfectly suits its street level tone.

If you’ll forgive the pun, The Dregs #1 isn’t exactly the meatiest of debuts, but what it does deliver satisfies enough to start this series on a compelling note. Melding social issues, horror, and mystery Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler set their dirty little crime story apart from the pack and give Black Mask Studios another solidly entertaining debut issue under their belt. Along with the expressive and cleverly constructed artwork from Eric Zawadski and Dee Cunniffe, The Dregs #1 is a lean slab of bizarro noir just waiting for readers to try a bite.

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