Best Shots Reviews: BLACK PANTHER #169, MONSTRESS #13, LEGION #1

Image Comics January 2018 cover
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Brian Stelfreeze (Marvel Comics)

Black Panther #169
Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Art by Leonard Kirk and Laura Martin
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

T’Challa takes a back seat as Black Panther shifts its focus towards Ayo and Aneka as they try to escape from the clutches of Klaw, Doctor Faustus, and Zenzi. Artists Leonard Kirk and Laura Martin are spotlighted this issue as they and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates craft an almost completely dialogue-free issue.

Black Panther #169 may take the cake for the most deceptive comic book cover of the year. It’s become accepted that covers are mainly a marketing tool and don’t always represent the contents of the individual issue, but this cover by Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin is particularly ill-fitting. Only one of the featured Marvel superheroes (Black Panther) appears in the pages of this book and he only manages to do it for a single panel.

Black Panther #169 focuses on Aneka as she makes for a daring rescue of Ayo. Due to circumstances involving Klaw’s powers, the issue is depicted almost entirely without dialogue or sound effects. This change allows artist Leonard Kirk to show off his visual storytelling. This is by far the most action-heavy issue of Black Panther since Ta-Nehisi Coates began his run, and Kirk knocks it out of the park. Between getting the little beats right, such as when Aneka kicks her shackle into a guard before he can pull the trigger on his pistol, and the larger dramatic moments featuring Klaw and his sister, Kirk expertly crafts every detail, making the issue a riveting read.

Laura Martin, too, does a masterful job. Her color art has been a major part of Black Panther since the debut issue, giving the series a consistency in spite of rotating artists. Here, her colors help tell the story, starting with almost sickly greens and greys that transition into dramatic reds as the issue ultimately crescendos to its climax.

Credit must also go to Ta-Nehisi Coates for the staging this issue. Black Panther has oft been criticized for being verbose and lacking in action, the latter being one of Coates’ weak points in his comic book writing. This issue shows the growth the writer has made in that department. That being said, Black Panther #169 still highlights one of the more divisive aspects of Coates’ run: the lack of focus on T’Challa.

The choice to have the title character make what is essentially a cameo appearance is the main thing holding the issue back. The issue’s almost singular focus on Ayo and Aneka has it feeling more like a backdoor pilot for a World of Wakanda relaunch than an issue of the main book. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if this diversion didn’t feel like part of an overall trend in the book. Two of the past four issues have now been dedicated entirely to supporting characters and antagonists, while T’Challa has shared time in the other pair.

Black Panther #169 is a well-crafted book that arguably puts too much of the series’ focus on T’Challa’s supporting cast. How much one likes this issue will largely depend on how well Coates won you over on Ayo and Aneka in the first place. The artwork by Leonard Kirk and Laura Martin is stunning, but it’s easy to imagine that most fans would rather see this type of work depicting the actions of the lead character.

Credit: Image Comics

Monstress #13
Written by Marjorie Liu
Art by Sana Takeda
Lettering by Rus Wooten
Published by Image Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

“My mother never taught me how to listen for silence. I learned that from you, Tuya.”

Reading the tightly balanced and plot-heavy Monstress #13, the aforementioned quote from the halfway point rings true for fans of Maika Halfwolf’s odyssey of survival. Throughout the first two arcs, writer Marjorie Liu has been both selective with her use of graphic violence and unafraid of testing the limits of comfortability, and artist Sana Takeda has been so skilled at depicting visceral events at the same high quality as the astounding fantastical scenes that litter the series. With the third arc opening on an issue that mostly avoids explosive scenes of violence, readers are no doubt going to feel a sense of unease, both because the complex plot has so many moving pieces that all seem to be racing towards conflict and because tone that Liu crafts never lets you forget that any peaceful moment is fleeting. Maika needs to keep moving.

The comic picks up in the aftermath of Zinn, the eldritch abomination residing within Maika, devouring the entire crew of the Blood Queen’s ship. While Maika, the cheerful Kippa, and the increasingly suspicious talking cat Ren make it to the refugee camp Tear Shed, the scenes taking place elsewhere in the world reinforce that though the protagonist has a quiet moment, the rest of the world is still awfully noisy. Ren’s covert walkie talkie-esque conversation furthers the anxiety that there may be a traitor in the ranks.

On the other side of the world, the long conversation regarding the zealous Mother Superior’s intentions to usurp control of the Federation and Admiral Brito’s resolve to stop it conjure just as much interest as scenes with the protagonist because everything carries with it the weight of huge potential consequences. Everything is grim with Mother Superior and the Cumaea being a somewhat fringe extremist wing of the Federation. To imagine them with the entire weight of the Federation’s resource behind them is frightening given what they have shown capable of doing with less.

What continues to be one of the most impressive elements of Monstress is just how lived in this world feels. The past six years have included a wealth of science fiction and fantasy comics that exceed in worldbuilding, but even among the undeniable great worlds created by fellow Image Comics releases Saga and Descender, Monstress stands out. The political machinations at the heart of this story never feel arbitrary because everything that it operates against has been virtuosically constructed. Liu gives her world and her characters a sense of gravitas and Takeda depicts them so uniquely and frames them so importantly, that it feels like every character that gets introduced has the capacity to completely change the course of the story.

On the subject of Takeda’s art, when the script gives her the opportunity for a big set piece or for some grand unveiling she shows a real skill at making whatever she is drawing feel special. Two very obvious examples of this bookend Monstress #13. The first is the emergence of the leviathan Warden that specializes in maritime law. While the Warden’s forced dialogue is the only major misstep in the comic book, the reveal allows Takeda to show her talent at crafting something that manages to find the delicate middle ground between tangible and unknowable, which clearly helps the comic as a whole any time the monster that lives within Maika makes an appearance.

The second is much later when the antler-laden Vihn Nem is revealed to have been waiting for Maika. Her framing in the panel expertly implies her importance and her distinct design seems to indicate that she will be a lasting presence. All of this is further assisted by Takeda’s use of colors, with her muted tones often giving the feel of something arcane and much older than it actually is. This color choice helps the narrative because the ramifications of ancient events in-text are omnipresent.

Monstress #13, for all its lore-dependence and plot complexities, is a surprisingly effective entry point into the world of the title. Readers can easily find themselves hooked and willing to dive into the previous two trades. Certain aspects of the world might seem harder to follow without the previous 12 issues, but everything in this books works so well that it would hardly ruin the experience, and anyway this has never been a series content to hold readers’ hands when it comes to the political intrigue or the fantastical setting that it uses. Monstress #13 is a comic that has emerged from a slumber with an even greater sense of urgency than the high point at which the previous arc concluded.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Legion #1
Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Wilfredo Torres and Dan Brown
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Micallef
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

In seeking to clearly define the intricate struggles of mental illness portrayed in prior incarnations of the character, Legion #1 loses some of what makes David Waller tick. This new series follows David Waller, the schizophrenic Omega-level psychic known as Legion, on a quest to quell his inner-now-outer demons, lead by the evil Lord Trauma. As Waller blunders his way through his new quest to stop Doctor Trauma, he finds himself in the company of one Dr. Hannah Jones, a celebrity doctor dealing with her own onslaught of Waller’s mutant-powered mental illness manifestations.

It’s an odd line to walk - as the X-Men’s metaphor of civil rights has started to lose its potency in the modern age of comic books, Legion, a character so blatantly ripe for deep psychological exploration, holds nearly limitless potential for both legitimizing and spotlighting the inner turmoil of mental illness. And to that end, Peter Milligan’s script does serve this narrative and manage to keep the book entertaining and fluid for the most part. Haller’s characterization smartly mirrors that of the recent television show, and Milligan is able to make the character both sympathetic and understandable - no small feat for a character that is by design meant to come across as off-putting.

But the book suffocates under how close to the chest it is played. Underneath Waller’s unlikely obelisk of hair lies the limitless potential to portray any sort of metaphorical mindscape, but Legion #1 grounds Waller’s story in his cross country hitchhiking trek with a restricted approach to any sort of psychedelic imagery or scenario. It’s an understandable approach, one meant to attract readers that may be initially turned off by the sort of metafictional weirdness approach employed in Simon Spurrier’s previous depiction of the character - but the affliction of mental illness isn’t a thing that can entirely defined in clear terms and in streamlining a story of this sort, much of the potential potency is sanitized.

This approach also extends to Wilfredo Torres’ artwork. His angular linework, colored flatly by Dan Brown, crafts a comic book that is easily read and followed, but one that does little to both captivate and confuse. Yes, confuse! A book like this, which attempts to not only approach but explore a mutant with a myriad of multiple personalities, could serve to be a little indescribable - particularly since the recent Legion FX series was defined by its daring visual sensibilities. But this comic’s attempts to follow suit with things like tentacles and electronic facial projections feels trite in comparison to what has come before and what could have been.

The biggest criticism I can levy against Legion #1 is that it is perfectly serviceable in terms of being a modern X-Men comic book, but ultimately disappointing in terms of an exploration of mental health through the aesthetics of psychedelia. By grounding itself in such literal and unassuming settings, Milligan and Torres limit what their narrative can do in terms of comic book storytelling. With such vast minds at its disposal both on and behind the page, let’s hope that Legion breaks free from its self-imposed limits.

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