Best Shots Reviews: MISTER MIRACLE #1, MS. MARVEL #21, PANTHEON, More

Pantheon
Credit: Nobrow Press
Credit: Nick Derington (DC Comics)

Mister Miracle #1
Written by Tom King
Art by Mitch Gerads
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Darkseid is.

For over 40 years, the the story of Jack Kirby's Mister Miracle has been a story about the man who escaped Hell. The son of God who was traded as a pawn to broker peace between good and evil is a nice enough dream. The tales of Scott Free told about escaping an evil god’s world and forging something resembling a normal existence of a wife and a house in the suburbs. And that’s the story that Tom King and Mitch Gerads are picking up in Mister Miracle #1, a thematic sequel to King’s own The Vision with Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordie Bellaire. If his previous Marvel series was about a husband who was blind to the disintegration of his family around him, Mister Miracle begins with a man who thinks he sees everything all too clearly and recognizes the disappointments and failures that come along with being a god and a man.

Darkseid is.

Ultimately, Scott Free is a war baby who grew up into a man who was never able to escape the conflict. King and Gerads open their book with a suicide attempt and quickly follow it up with a dark joke, reminding us of both the godhood and the humanity of Mister Miracle. He’s the New God who least wanted to be a god but still used his superheroic divinity for good. He was the least godly god of any Kirby creation. As a beginning to their series, King and Gerads show us a man who is suffering grief and depression. Hints of both private grief and societal grief open the book with a familiar scene of a man sitting on a bathroom floor, watching the blood flow out of his wrists.

Gerads’ portrayal of this scene is all-too realistic but also oddly abstract. Throughout the book, Gerads is visually playful in ways that seem to provide hints and clues about what’s really happening here but the opening scene is almost too much to even process. We’re all used to life and death heroics but Gerads imagery, particularly in the opening scene, is not what we expect in modern comics. And while we don’t expect our heroes to so blatantly attempt to kill themselves, we also don’t expect the art to be so obvious yet so concealing of a reality that would drive a hero and a god to this point. The art tells the story but it also portrays the strong and painful emotions behind that story.

Darkseid is.

The story slowly peels back the emotional state of the character. King and Gerads work to create many mysteries for the ultimate escape artist to overcome but they never let you see behind the curtain of those mysteries. Instead, they let them create this emotional landscape for Scott Free that shows a man trying and failing to understand his actions and their impact on his family. As some images of Scott and his wife Barda’s life are just ridiculous (her sitting in a hospital emergency room in full battle armor,) King and Gerads use that incongruity to craft the larger picture of a Scott Free who is quickly losing his grip on reality.

Darkseid is.

“Darkseid is” is a phrase that’s been hanging around at least since Grant Morrison’s days on JLA and is usually used to demonstrate the complete subjugation of our world by Darkseid. In Final Crisis, Morrison continued its use to demonstrate the complete and total victory of this dark god, but King and Gerads adopt it for a much different and more intimate use. This grandiose term becomes not an identification of victory but a declaration of being in Mister Miracle #1. Scott Free is living in a “Darkseid is” worldview. The Scott Free in this book fights a losing fight with a world and a pressing weight that is best described as “Darkseid is.” Think of any number of ideologues in the world today, add “is” after their name and see how you feel about going on another day.

While the stone-faced god known as Darkseid is the unseen villain du jour of this piece, the villain embodied by the concept “Darkseid is” is something far more insidious, dark and destructive. It is the thing that has taken one of the few beings who has escaped the hell of Apocalypse and has beaten him down into a state where where world’s greatest escape artist tries to accomplish the final escape from this life. Tom King and Mitch Gerad make “Darkseid is” into a virus that has infected this world like so many viruses, memes, and fascists have infected our everyday life. Mister Miracle #1 is an issue that asks how we can face the world day in and day out and it’s an issue that frighteningly has no answers for that question.

Darkseid is.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Ms. Marvel #21
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Art by Marco Failla and Ian Herring
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
  Review by Kat Calamia
?Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

With the penultimate issue of “Mecca,” things start to hit even closer to home for Kamala as the identity of Discord is revealed. Ms. Marvel is always at its strongest when the narrative intertwines with both Ms. Marvel the hero and Kamala the citizen of Jersey City, and this story is a well-balanced one that weaves both these narratives in stride.

The issue opens up with Discord carting away Kamala’s brother, Aamir, and other unregistered super-powered citizens of Jersey City. Right from this first page starts Kamala’s internal conflict inflicted by Lockdown, the arc’s current big bad. Kamala’s brother is in danger, and she must decide to either take a utilitarian approach or to save Aamir no matter the consequences.

G. Willow Wilson opens with a very interesting conflict, as Kamala has to choose between her loved ones and all of Jersey City - a question that all heroes have to ask themselves during their career. What’s more important: the lives of the few or the lives of the many? This theme continues throughout the issue as the identity of Discord is revealed.

The fight between Discord and Ms. Marvel continues in the city’s mosque as Aamir tries to bring his new friends to shelter in a place that has always made him feel safe. In the heat of battle, Kamala rips off Discord’s mask to reveal her longtime classmate, Josh, has been the villain she’s been railing against, allowing Wilson to add another layer to an already personal story arc.

The reveal of Josh as Discord is one of the best showcases of how much work Wilson puts into developing not only the character of Kamala Khan, but also her supporting cast. The whole second half of the issue is used to allow Josh to explain his motives to Ms. Marvel. Discord isn’t your mustache-twirling villain. Instead he’s a kid who felt sorry for himself, which caused him to make a lot of bad decisions.

Revealing his identity as Discord, Josh also reveals to Kamala the real person that’s been simmering underneath. This causes Ms. Marvel to open herself up to Josh in a way that sure will bring consequences, which seems to be a reoccurring theme for this story arc. With this cliffhanger, Kamala learns that there is more to being a hero than punching the bad guy because punching the bad guy never saved Josh. She needs to make a true connection with Josh to be a hero for him. Now it will be up to Josh if he wants to continue down the path of evil or the path of good.

Marco Failla’s pencils and Ian Herring’s colors are as electric as G. Willow Wilson’s script. Failla does a great job at balancing the action and emotional beats of this issue. This was best portrayed in the conversation between Josh and Kamala in the mosque. The scene starts with Discord violently grabbing Kamala as she pulls off his mask. Josh’s anger turns into defeat as he slumps towards the wall expressing his feelings to Ms. Marvel.

G. Willow Wilson continues to make every new installment of “Mecca” more personal for Kamala, while also building supporting cast members Aamir and Josh. Ms. Marvel #21 is not only action packed, but an emotional roller coaster as Kamala is forced to break down the barriers she has created to keep her superheroic identity a secret.

Credit: Nobrow Press

Pantheon OGN
Written and Illustrated by Hamish Steele
Published by Nobrow Press
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Mythology can be vitally important, a way through which all cultures explore their identity and their place in the world. Mythology can also be delightfully weird across the globe, rife with familial strife that, when stripped of its grandeur, rivals the beats of any classic modern family sitcom (for good reason).

Amidst a backdrop of all-powerful gods and goddesses, beautiful traditions and some of the most lasting architecture ever built in modern history, the roots of ancient Egyptian mythology don’t seem at first glance to have much in common with Roseanne or even Married … with Children. There are kernels of inspiration there, though, and in his latest work for Nobrow Press, cartoonist Hamish Steele strips away centuries of told and re-told mythology to offer up a riotously funny and surprisingly accurate take on the pantheon of ancient Egypt that lays bare the threads of family and hardship that can still be found inspiring stories across genres and mediums today.

Pantheon is a beautifully illustrated book with bright, vibrant colors and bold lines suited to the almost cartoonish twist Steele gives the gods and goddesses. Steele makes no great effort to reinvent the wheel with his interpretation of the titular pantheon; where some modern takes on Egyptian mythology have offered glamorized twists on Egyptian depictions, overwrought with visual metaphors and steeped in decidedly Western aesthetics, Steele keeps the distinctive visual features of better known deities like Ra or Osiris authentic to Egyptian artwork, but reworked in Steele’s own distinctive visual style. The gods look like themselves, and feel as authentically Egyptian as they can within the confines of Steele’s off-beat interpretation of the mythos.

There’s a very helpful spread at the front of the book that captures, in just two pages of simple profiles, Steele’s aesthetic and the weird and convoluted nature of the story he’s attempting to retell with Pantheon. Ammit, the crocodile-headed devourer, is as cute as she is strangely surreal in Steele’s artwork, with her big toothy smile and thick lion’s mane - when she turns up again, chowing down on hearts in the afterlife, she still seems almost sweet thanks to the dog-like way she bears her teeth.

The little busts are a perfect, bite-sized encapsulation of who each deity is: wily Set, a nameless beast who Steele gives a hyena’s grin and a wolfish, predatory delight in his eyes; Isis, clever and cunning with a steely-eyed lack of interest in tolerating Set’s schemes; Osiris, regal but looking just dopey enough to be dumb enough to climb into a box when directed by his murderous brother.

Steele’s retelling of Egyptian mythology is unapologetically not safe for work, as many cultural mythologies tend to be. Creation stories are sexual and played for a juvenile titter, and the transition from ruling gods to holy kings is a gory, bloody mess. Pantheon doesn’t skirt around sexual content or the violent rampages of someone like Sekhmet but doesn’t linger in a way that feels fetishizing either - there’s blood and guts, but Hamish Steele’s style is playful enough to soften the edges of the violence a myth centered on “I cut my brother into 42 pieces” involves.

Mythology is interesting and compelling enough that countless creators across all mediums have pursued “fresh” takes on religious beliefs across the globe for ages to varying degrees of success. What makes Pantheon such a fun read is Steele’s charming artwork and sometimes low-brow sense of humor, but what makes it a surprise is the heartfelt ending. Pantheon is certainly an ode to the weirdness of one of the world’s greatest and most lasting stories, but it also takes a moment to remind readers of the value of the stories Steele explores.

As convoluted as Set and Osiris and Isis and Horus’ family tree may be, these mythologies have persisted for centuries because of the emotional value they offer: tales of struggle, of family, of perseverance, of an overwhelming and strange transition of one of our greatest civilizations through the ages. Pantheon ends with a sweetness in its voice that will remind you that even gods can learn, and that ultimately, our ability to learn, to accept the harm we do to others and to move on to a stage of our lives where we try never to harm again, is a vital part of these mythologies of which we will never stop needing reminders.

Credit: Titan Comics

Mycroft Holmes And the Apocalypse Handbook TPB
Written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
Art by Joshua Cassara and Luis Gerrero
Lettered by Simon Bowland
Published by Titan Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

There aren’t many great fictional portrayals of Sherlock Holmes’ oft-forgotten older brother Mycroft, and what few there are often portray him as protective and exasperated by his brother’s quirks in equal measure. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t stray much from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s well-established Holmes canon, but he offers a campy, action-packed twist on Mycroft’s younger years and the traditional Doyle mystery tale in Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook, a fun trade paperback out last Wednesday from Titan Comics.

This is Abdul-Jabbar’s second foray into the life and times of Mycroft Holmes for Titan, and his comfort with the character is evident throughout the book. Abdul-Jabbar and co-writer Raymond Obstfeld create a version of Mycroft Holmes who is as gratingly smug as he is irresistibly charming, and skillfully keep Mycroft’s constant holier-than-thou monologues from being exhausting.

Mycroft Holmes isn’t a kid-friendly affair - it’s a bit raunchy, lingering in early panels on Mycroft in bed, naked, with a professor’s wife, and the gore is almost gleefully rendered by artist Joshua Cassara and colorist Luis Guerrero, but Mycroft Holmes manages to give the women in its cast plenty of opportunity to put Mycroft in his place. He’s often an unlikeable ass, and Abdul-Jabbar never bothers trying to write Mycroft as if his genius should make up for his often grating personality.

The miniseries feels like a wink and nod to the common tropes of the multitude of genres it tips into, with jokes that have Mycroft almost but not quite breaking the fourth wall in a subtle acknowledgement of the inherent campiness of a tale involving an Apocalypse Handbook. There are moments when a villain is almost comically nefarious, or Mycroft’s deductions too on the nose - it’s not stellar, but it’s absolutely a good time, but its writing is fast-paced and the art engaging enough to forgive its weaknesses.

The colors do drag the book down at times, though, with Guerrero using gloomy, heavy shadows throughout that go far to evoke the melancholy of a rainy English day, but sometimes muddy up the fine details of Joshua Cassara’s incredibly detailed artwork. There are some beautiful moments, though, when Guerrero has the opportunity to play with more light; a scene on a train traveling through the American west under the fading oranges of a setting sun are beautifully colored, and Guerrero is an incredible partner for Cassara’s emotive faces. Tight shots on individual characters’ faces are always compelling, with Guerrero managing to capture a telling glint in the eyes of each person — a hint of suspicion in Frank James, the fleeting moment of horror before any number of characters’ sudden deaths, and a stunningly illustrated panel of Lark Adler, glowing under the light of a solitary lantern.

The spirit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s miniseries is a little more Robert Downey Jr. than Benedict Cumberbatch, leaning into the fantastic elements afforded by an enemy whose dangerous tools were forged by a fictional gathering of some of the world’s greatest, and very real, futurists. (The Edward Bellamy cameo was a welcome touch.) Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook is a fun, if sometimes gory, mystery romp, with a charming partnership in Holmes and Adler that makes the book a delight to read.

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