Best Shots Reviews: MS. MARVEL #15, DETECTIVE COMICS #950, UNWORTHY THOR #4

"Detective Comics #950" variant
Credit: Rafael Albuquerque (DC Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

Ms. Marvel #15
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Art by Takeshi Miyazawa and Ian Herring
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Kat Calamia
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“Some smart person said we all have three lives: a public life, a private life, and secret life. Which sounds nice, except… we live in a world without secrets.”

Kamala Khan is a high schooler, an Inhuman, and a famous teen superhero known as Ms. Marvel. That means she’s use to wearing many masks, keeping parts of her life secret. In Ms. Marvel #15, G. Willow Wilson tackles the use of metaphorical masks in the technological age, providing a clever, modern twist on the common secret identity superhero trope.

Ms. Marvel’s latest villain is the worst type of person – an internet troll! This antagonist knows that Kamala is Ms. Marvel and has been attacking all different aspects of her life. Ms. Marvel #15 explores Kamala’s internal struggle and paranoia as she feels the masks she’s built are being slowly ripped off without her permission.

This issue opens up with Kamala at her high school, anxious that her peers know about her secret life. She feels like all eyes are on her but instead Clara, a girl from Kamala’s class, is the actual center of attention when personal information from her phone are leaked out to the entire school. This shows that superheroes aren’t the only people wearing masks, especially in high school.

The high school setting gives the opportunity for Wilson to showcase Kamala’s supporting cast: Gabe, Zoe, Nakia, and Mike. It’s always a pleasure to see these characters have panel time. It shows that Kamala has a life outside being Ms. Marvel. Adding these characters into the story heightens Kamala’s feeling of isolation. Wilson uses inner monologue to overshadow Kamala’s day-to-day high school life, showing how the troll is affecting her relationships with her friends and family. This was a great way to use Kamala’s supporting characters, but I also think it’s a missed opportunity not to dig deeper into the masks Kamala’s friends wear. Instead of introducing new characters to explore this side of the plot, the story would have been stronger if Wilson used the supporting cast the readers are already familiar with.

G. Willow Wilson balances Kamala’s superhero and secret identity life perfectly with her script, and Takeshi Miyazawa does the same with his artwork. His pencils shine the most during the issue’s high school scenes showcasing the student’s diverse personalities, and their use of technology in school. We see the kids on their phones in class and while they have lunch in the cafeteria. Each student uses their phones differently. Nakia seems to be open with her cell phone showing her text messages to her friends, and Zoe (who we know has been keeping her sexuality a secret) uses her phone as a shield. This excessive use of technology makes the internet troll even more menacing. Kamala is surrounded by technology! This is a villain she can never escape.

Ms. Marvel has always been great at reinventing the superhero genre, and this arc is no exception. The secret identity trope may feel overused to some readers, but this issue presents this old trope in a fresh, new way. Wilson uses technology to build the suspense of the villain’s motives as the troll’s attacks hit close to home, making this enigma even more menacing.

 

Credit: DC Comics

Detective Comics #950
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Marcio Takara, Alvaro Martinez, Eddy Barrows, Raul Fernandez, Eber Ferriera, Dean White, Brad Anderson and Adriano Lucas Lettering by Marilyn Patrizio
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

There’s a reason why Batman and his family have survived for 950 issues of Detective Comics - and underneath the costumes, the gadgets and the crazy cavalcade of supervillains, the reason why these vigilantes have endured for so long is because of the humanity underneath the masks. With that in mind, James Tynion IV, along with artists Marcio Takara, Alvaro Martinez, and Eddy Barrows do the Dark Knight justice with this heartfelt and beautifully-realized anniversary special.

In many ways, there are shades of Devin Grayson and Roger Robinson’s Batman: Gotham Knights in this character-focused issue, as Tynion splits the book between Batman’s supporting cast. While Batwoman and Spoiler have gotten the lion’s share of the spotlight over the past few arcs, Tynion switches things up with stories on Orphan, Clayface, Batwing and Azrael, reminding us exactly why we fell in love with these characters in the first place.

The longest story of the bunch, featuring Orphan’s attempts to sanitize her photographic fighting abilities by studying ballet, is a particularly beautiful narrative (and one that resurrects the third-person omniscient narrator as a storytelling device, to boot). Themes of guilt and self-loathing have always run deep with Cassandra Cain, but lines like “she had never understood the purpose of art before that night” are almost unbearably poignant, showing that even unbeatable fight machines like Cassandra aren’t immune from their own demons. But there’s something darker and more subversive bubbling underneath the surface of Tynion's narrative, and watching Orphan struggle with the ease and seduction of murder - an art which she is a natural prodigy - makes for a chilling twist.

Artist Marcio Takara's edgy linework, along with Dean White’s use of purples and greens, is reminiscent at times of Andrew Robinson, while other times evokes an iconic Ivan Reis style. What’s most important about Tamara’s style, like Martinez and Barrows, is the expressiveness and experimentation of page layouts - characters like Orphan or Clayface each show their own levels of anguish despite wearing full face masks (or giant lumps of clay), while the full-page spread of Cassandra trying ballet moves is truly beautiful.

But Tynion isn’t about to stop there - while his first story is beautiful and poignant, his middle story featuring Batwing and Azrael is thoughtful and deep, with Luke Fox’s man of science talking religious philosophy with the agent of Saint Dumas. While Tynion is careful not to try to force an answer to the unanswerable - and given John-Paul’s history as a sometimes crazed “avenging angel,” you invariably have to take what he says with a grain of salt - but watching these two characters gently debate the point is something you don’t typically see in superhero comics these days. Combine that with Alvaro Fernandez’s artwork - which, make no mistake, Fernandez is the best up-and-coming talent at DC these days - and you have a talking heads scene that doesn’t feel like a talking heads scene, but instead feels dynamic and stylish even after the action stops.

The final four-page story, meanwhile, feels more like a teaser than a full-on story, but Tynion and Barrows deliver something that fits within the ever-changing world of the "Rebirth" era of the DC Universe. Titled “The Big Picture,” Tynion uses this epilogue to not only give Batman a fitting mystery for this anniversary issue of Detective Comics, but ties nicely within the various corners of the DCU, from Damian Wayne’s adventures with the Teen Titans to Bruce’s own new #1 with Justice League of America. There’s not a ton of answers to be had here, but the questions are more than enough to tantalize readers - as is Eddy Barrows’ artwork, whose shadows and mood make for some particularly powerful pages, even if they’re largely just recap.

If you haven’t been reading this run so far, it’s obvious that James Tynion IV is a diehard Batman fan, and with Detective Comics #950, he’s giving readers a fantastic gift to celebrate the Dark Knight’s latest anniversary. Because given his ever-expanding cast of sidekicks and supporting characters, Batman truly is the gift that keeps on giving - he lends himself so well to spinoffs and new angles and endless amounts of stories. If you want to remind yourself why you keep reading superhero comic books, Detective Comics #950 is the book for you.
 

Credit: Marvel Comics

The Unworthy Thor #4
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Olivier Coilel, Kim Jacinto, Frazer Irving, Esad Ribic, Russell Dauterman, Matthew Wilson and Matt Milla
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by Joe Sabino
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

If the quintessential Thor story can be distilled into one word, it wouldn't be "epic" or "heroic", though those words abound when dealing with Odinson. It would be "sincerity." Thor excels when every aspect of the issue contributes to the overall sincerity of the narrative. This hasn't been an issue for Jason Aaron's run of The Unworthy Thor, as that idea of earnestness permeates through the overarching fight sequence and the flashbacks that weave throughout it.

After a stylistically striking flashback, the story picks up with the three-sided brawl between Thor and company, Black Swan and Proxima Midnight, and the Collector. The juggling of these current scenes with flashbacks, and with the dialogue of those flashbacks spilling into the present reinforces the narrative history of the Thunder God, something which Aaron has been particularly excelling with during this run, as well as his sense of narrative cohesion. While the ending of the issue is undoubtedly the weakest part, the final line is remarkably strong as it was teased over a dozen pages earlier. Another interesting aspect of the storytelling is that, barring some brief fleshing out of just how terrifying Black Swan and Proxima Midnight are, the comic isn't really plot-driven. This is a issue more concerned with who Thor is than what Thor is doing. Each flashback deals nominally with Thor's relationship to the hammer, but through that we gain insight into Thor's view of himself.

The juxtaposition of high fantasy themed art in the flashback sequences with the dark cosmicism of the present is interesting and highlights the odd aesthetic space that Thor has always occupied. This combination is further highlighted in the writing by Jane's conversation with Thor about the nature of the divine, and whether or not the Asgardians are really just extra-terrestrials. The five artists present in this issue each provide stellar yet easily differentiated panels. Series regulars Olivier Coipel and Kim Jacinto have the best showing, but the jump between their style and the easily identifiable styles of Esad Ribic and Frazer Irving contributes to the overall theme of identity, and in particular how Thor's sense of identity is linked to both the ability to wield the hammer and the idea of "worthiness" that is proven by that ability. This further ties into the cohesive elements of the comic with the exploration of Thor's relationship to the hammer throughout his life. While the art looks beautiful and is thematically relevant throughout the course of the book, it is occasionally hard to follow. The action is sometimes disorienting and the reader is left with little sense of an actual physical location, and with virtually no spatial idea of the Ultimate Hammer's location.

The 20 pages of high-quality Thor-ytelling are soured by the final splash. That final moment ends one panel before it should. The reader sees Thor standing confidently above the Earth-1610 Hammer, hilt in hand as lightning begins to erupt amidst some well-written narration. Rather than being given an ending that changes everything about the story before the final issue, we are presented with an ending which is unresolved actively works against Aaron's four issues of forward momentum. An ending that would have committed could have given the audience a goosebump-inducing "Now what?" moment, but we are instead given "What happened?" That is an important distinction. The Unworthy Thor #4's ending can lead to only a single panel payoff of answering the reader's question, as opposed to a full final issue response to changing the reader's understanding of the story.

This is nitpicking to an extent. The Unworthy Thor #4 is a success in most regards and is ultimately oozing with even more sincerity than it had four issues ago. There isn't a touch of irony or cynicism here, and while that would ordinarily be incredibly easy to mess up or make boring, the writing portrays a virtue of upfront honor that's hard to find in post-2010 comic books. Thor the character and Thor the idea are obviously in good hands with Jason Aaron, and the cornucopia of artists operating at the top of their games in this issue is a perpetual and varied feast for the eyes. Considering Aaron has one more issue left to wrap up this arc, I have little doubt that the end is going to be explosive. This issue isn't a bad set-up for that; it's just a little unworthy.

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