Best Shots Reviews: BLACK WIDOW #4, JUSTICE LEAGUE #51, VOTE LOKI #1

"Justice League #51" cover
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Black Widow #4
Written by Chris Samnee and Mark Waid
Art by Chris Samnee and Matthew Wilson
Art by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

There’s good artists. There’s great artists. And then there’s Chris Samnee.

Read Black Widow #4 if you don’t believe me. Over the past six years, Samnee has evolved tremendously since his breakout work in Thor: The Mighty Avenger, but with Black Widow, I think we’re seeing something different. Maybe it’s because he’s serving as co-writer with Mark Waid, an imminently talented script architect in his own right — or maybe it’s because he’s working with a character as stoic and reserved as Natasha Romanov, a character who requires strong visuals to compensate for her walled-off internal life. Either way, this series proves to be a new benchmark for Samnee’s particular set of skills, delivering possibly the best artwork out of any Marvel series today.

On the face of it, Black Widow #4 doesn’t have the most revolutionary of plots — this is standard spy action, buts it’s Samnee’s execution that proves to be quite extraordinary. Nearly half of this book’s 20 pages are completely silent, but this is one of the rare comic book issue where that doesn’t feel like a bait-and-switch. Unlike most narration-driven comic books where the external action often takes a backseat to the exposition being laid out in the text, Black Widow refreshingly changes the script — what’s happening in front of us is all that matters. Sure, you’ve probably seen superheroes storm a bad guy’s base before, but even Natasha seems bowled over by Samnee’s sweeping, snowy vistas, lovingly washed in icy blues by colorist Matthew Wilson.

But the visual innovation doesn’t end there. Like I said before, this issue is less about the narrative meat and more about the visual storytelling — so beats like breaking into the aforementioned villain’s lair aren’t hinged on the tension and danger, but instead on the artistry of infiltration. There’s one page in particular that really stands out here, with Natasha crawling through a ventilation shaft, with a maze criss-crossing the panel gutters to show just how sprawling this base really is. Meanwhile, when Natasha finally confronts her shadowy foes, Samnee drenches his characters in shadows, with Wilson providing a stark red lighting source that evokes John Cassaday and Laura Martin’s work on Astonishing X-Men. This kind of design shows what a good decision it was to have Samnee join Mark Waid on writing duties — instead of the visuals being limited solely to what Waid can imagine, this holistic approach allows for he and Samnee to incorporate and contextualize any sort of design tricks as fast as Samnee can envision them.

That’s not to say, however, that this is strictly just an art book — there’s a solid foundation here, even if Natasha’s low-dialogue approach can run a bit counterintuitive to today’s market. Given Natasha’s codename and shadowy past, it’s kind of surprising to me that Marvel hasn’t doubled down before on that old superhero trope of giving their hero an evil mirror image, a la Venom or the Reverse Flash. But the rest of the industry’s failure to capitalize is Waid and Samnee’s gain, with new villain the Black Recluse having a smart, easily understandable reason to want to take Natasha out — even she knows how badass the Black Widow is, even as a child, and has spent the intervening years training and conniving to overtake her “big sister.” As far as plot progression goes, there’s not a ton beyond introducing this new antagonist — and indeed, this might be this book’s only flaw at this point — but now that the Recluse has been established, there could be some big fireworks down the line.

Or maybe not. That’s the thing that bears most watching about this iteration of Black Widow, is that it’s on fairly unexplored territory here — this isn’t the writer-driven kind of comic book that’s dominated the industry for the past 15 years, nor is it the bombastic, ultra-rendered artist-driven titles of the ‘90s that preceded it. Samnee’s rise to the top heralds a literary spin on the A-list artist, both an embrace and a repudiation of the Image superstardom that came a generation ago. This isn’t just about art that is exciting and looks good, but about visuals that can tell a story just as well — if not better — than prose-like narration. It’s a complicated web for even the Black Widow to sustain, but with creators like Samnee, Waid and Wilson as her handlers, fans shouldn’t miss out on this exceptional series.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #51
Written by Dan Abnett
Art by Paul Pelletier, Sandra Hope and Adriano Lucas
Lettering by Carlos M. Manual
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Don’t call it a comeback — Dan Abnett’s been here for years.

And yet, “comeback” feels like the most appropriate word when it comes to describing this longtime writer, particularly as DC Comics moves past its "New 52" era and tries to set things right with its "Rebirth." For years, Abnett was known best as one half of “DnA,” working with his then-writing partner Andy Lanning on books like Resurrection Man, The Authority and their movie-inspiring run on Guardians of the Galaxy. But since splitting with Lanning in 2014, Abnett’s work has been fairly unremarkable, with middling runs on Hercules or Guardians of Infinity missing that spark of humanity that made his earlier work so compelling.

In many ways, Abnett’s growing pains feels like a microcosm of what DC aims to outgrow — and with work like Justice League #51, it seems like Abnett might be one of the standard-bearers for the kind of engaging, character-driven storytelling that DC is looking to reclaim.

Featuring a flashback story about Dick Grayson’s first meeting with the Justice League, Abnett uses his young POV character to explore the characterization and dynamics of DC’s mightiest heroes. From the beginning, Robin acts as a leavening agent for what can occasionally be a bit of a stuffy superteam — it’s great to see how these established superheroes react to this soon-to-be Titan in their midst, whether it’s Wonder Woman saying the League is “no place for a child,” or the Flash and Green Lantern cracking jokes about it being “Bring Your Kid to Work Day.” Abnett is also able to have his cake and eat it too by having Robin strike up a wonderfully organic dynamic with the other young member of the team, Cyborg — the two not only evoke memories of an era where they were both Teen Titans, but Abnett uses their exchange to give Vic some much-needed fleshing out.

But while the League underestimates Robin, any longtime DC reader knows that’s the case — and Abnett has his teen hero acquit himself nicely when robotic animals begin to invade Metropolis. Watching Dick have the guts to jump into the fray and throw his “R” star at a robo-beast — and then have Wonder Woman ask to borrow his shuriken to show him how it’s done — is a great beat. (In fact, Abnett has a very strong handle on Diana as a character — it’s telling that when this story winds up being a misunderstanding at heart, it’s Wonder Woman who is the first one to establish lines of communication.) Even characters that don’t get quite as much face time, like Batman or the Flash, still wind up having some very deliberate choreography in this battle royale, whether it’s the Flash’s swiftness being used against him or Batman surprising everyone with a well-placed punch on a speedy adversary.

Paul Pelletier, meanwhile, brings a solid if old-school vibe to this team book. In certain ways, he seems to be evoking that John Byrne sensibility to the way his characters are designed, although Adriano Lucas’s bright colors might also have something to do with that comparison. There’s not necessarily a ton of mood here — and with his style of panel layouts, Pelletier sometimes finds himself buckling under the pressure of trying to pack in all these characters while still keeping things dynamic — but ultimately he’s taking steps in the right direction for DC in that he’s aiming for cleanliness and accessibility with his art. The downside, however, is that while his character designs work well, his composition feels a little less than dynamic, with there being very few visual moments in the book that feel truly memorable.

The other thing that might rub some people the wrong way is the scale of this comic — although I do think that DC will likely experience a little bit of fluctuation as a whole, as readers start to recalibrate once they see the new narrative sensibilities behind the company. For this being a Justice League cmic book, it’s hard to argue that the protagonist is anyone other than Robin, which means that the rest of the team feels a little more removed than I think some readers might like. That said, this kind of bookend comic is exactly the kind of place where a story like this would be permissible, and ultimately, it feels like the kind of story that "Rebirth" as a whole is begging for — the reestablishment of these kinds of character beats and connections that made the DC Universe such a strong and cohesive world.

I’ve been writing comic book reviews for a long time — long enough to have watched the "New 52" from its beginnings, and to watch the changes and metamorphoses DC has taken since. With that in mind, reading DC’s "Rebirth" titles has been tremendously heartening — even when there are titles that are still works in progress, there’s been a big improvement almost exclusively across the board, and few writers have been as consistent with this improvement as Dan Abnett’s work on Aquaman, Titans and now Justice League. If DC’s other writers can perform as steadily as this one, count on "Rebirth" being a watershed moment for not just one publisher, but for superhero comics as a whole.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Vote Loki #1
Written by Christopher Hastings
Art by Langdon Foss and Chris Chuckry
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

While it may not reach Transmetropolitan levels of incendiary, Marvel’s Vote Loki #1 is an entertaining piece of satire ready made for the trickster’s legions of fans. Written by Christopher Hastings, best known for the hilarious The Adventures of Dr. McNinja with pencils by Langdon Foss and colors by Chris Chuckry, Vote Loki #1 is the tale of the God of Mischief finding himself wrapped up in the swirl of lies that is American politics, presented through the eyes of an intrepid reporter with close personal ties to Loki when they were still a major threat to the realm. Though the idea of Loki running for office may illicit eye rolls from even the staunchest of their fans, Hastings, Foss, and Chuckry deliver a surprisingly poignant first issue that may go a bit light on bold satirizing, but still starts this series on a high note.

While it opens on a flashback to several years ago during a struggle between the Avengers and an unseen foe — though we can probably guess who without much difficulty — Vote Loki spends much of its time on a street-level human scale. Hastings’ protagonist, Daily Bugle reporter Nisa Contreras is a genuine champion for truth — and one with a personal mad-on for Loki, who destroyed her childhood neighborhood during one of his more malevolent incarnations. While that flashback winds up telegraphing some of Hastings’ bigger dramatic moments later, Nisa is a great foil for Loki, as both his worst possible enemy as well as exactly the kind of person who Loki needs in his corner.

And that brings us to the god himself. Though this debut issue shrouds Loki’s true motivations for running for President — because of course it does — Hastings does a fine job handling Loki’s smooth yet duplicitous voice in the lead-up to his campaign announcement. After an all-too-convenient Hydra attack on the first candidate, Loki starts to coyly imply that he has no intention of running, much like every other lying politico, while slowly shoring up his bid through grassroots campaigning and Internet support like the more youth-savvy political players. It is through these scenes that Hastings delivers the issue’s satirical bits, like having Loki’s message boiled down to one incredible sound-bite, ala “Yes We Can” or “Make American Great Again,” and having him have this body’s American birth certificate at the ready in case people demand to see it. While some of these easy gags don’t exactly carry the same fire as other satirical comic works, but Hastings still gets the jokes across with ease and charm.

Expanding on that point, Christopher Hastings’ Loki is one you can’t help but get behind. Hastings keeps his Loki smiling and glad-handing as he tests the waters of American politics, but also gives us a quick taste of who he is behind the smile as he lays himself bare to Nisa — Loki knows if he can connect with her, he can connect to the public. Hastings even goes a step further playing with Loki’s gender fluidity as he transforms into Lady Loki after their announcement to lean into their booming polls with women. This move comes across well as playing to but never pandering to the back of the house when it comes to Loki’s diverse, queer and gender-fluid fans. This isn’t the grinning, malicious Loki of old, and Christopher Hastings makes sure to show us all the facets of Loki he can, while still keeping the character true to their trickster ways.

On the art front, penciler Langdon Foss and colorist Chris Chuckry keep Vote Loki #1‘s look planted firmly in realism, but their work gives this debut a singular style. Foss’ pencils and Chuckry’s colors combine in a sort of wavy, almost over-colored style, akin to the work of Ramon Villalobos mixed with the slightly exaggerated features of Brandon Graham. Though the pair never skew into full psychedelia, aside from the quick bit of Loki’s magic during the Hydra attack, taking form with a glowing Asgardian glyph behind the trickster and luminescent snakes that put down the attackers, the art team still find energy in the mundane and employ certain shading tricks to keep things looking fresh. FFoss also takes full advantage of Loki’s shifting personas, presenting the Loki of the present day as a scruffy, lanky, and rough looking presence, with a tattered coat and dark five-o’clock shadow, but when he shifts into Lady Loki, she is poised and confident with perfectly straightened black hair and an impeccable pencil skirted version of her current costume.

Vote Loki #1 is a story well-suited for today’s political climate and current Marvel Comics continuity, as it draws power from one and shows respect for the other in its characterization of the titular god. Christopher Hastings, Langdon Foss and Chris Chuckry take what could have been just a throwaway event gimmick and deliver something more like the hilarious and surreal Presidential campaign of Howard the Duck, but with a more pointed ripped from the headlines energy. Loki Laufeyson may be a liar, un-trustworthy, and possibly just waiting on the precise moment to seize as much power as they can, but Vote Loki #1 shows with humor, charm, and playfulness that no one is more well suited to the circus that is the American presidential race than the God of Mischief.

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