Best Shots Reviews: AVENGERS #2, NEW CHALLENGERS #1, WICKED + DIVINE #36, More

The Wicked + The Divine #36
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Mighty Thor: At the Gates of Valhalla #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jen Bartel, Ramon Perez and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

With Jane Foster getting her hero’s send-off last month and with writer Jason Aaron giving Odinson a mighty return in June, it’s hard to see Mighty Thor: At the Gates of Valhalla #1 as something other than a purgatorial tread between two more important stories. While the opening half of the comic book’s first story, “The Tomorrow Girls,” is somewhat lightweight, the issue ends up taking some surprisingly emotional turns before the second story, “The Lord of the Realms”, propels into dark high fantasy. With distinct artists Jen Bartel and Ramon Perez tackling visual duties respectively, its colorist Matthew Wilson who shines as his choices lead to the two art styles feeling more cohesive than they otherwise would. The result is a comic book that might otherwise be solely for completionists and the Thor-faithful being enjoyable for casual fans of Jane Foster’s time as Thor, while successfully drumming up interest in the Thor story "War of the Realms" that seems poised to go on a warpath through 2018.

“The Tomorrow Girls” is the more narratively charming, but ultimately weaker offering of the two stories contained, focusing on Thor’s three future granddaughters’ time travel hijinks that sometimes only amount to spending a single panel in a given location. It leads to some decent gags, but ultimately feels more like filler than the rest of the issue. When Aaron takes the Goddesses of Thunder to a future conflict between Old Man Thor and Loki, things become interesting and the potential of this story as a teaser for the upcoming year of Thor comics becomes apparent. Bartel does a stellar job in nearly every panel she delivers in this comic, as her distinct character drawings not only give the Goddesses a sense of presence on the page, but also makes Jane Foster look strong and vulnerable in a way that seems effortless. While Aaron struggles with characterizing all three of Thor’s granddaughters - only one feels distinct and memorable - he excels at making the moment when the Goddesses meet Lady Jane one that elicits emotion in readers. Jane’s one request to fly being granted is a beautiful moment.

“The Lord of the Realms” lacks the emotional core of the prior story, but makes up for it with a level of intensity and forward momentum. When Malekith tells a family of dark elves that their son fought so well that he became blood-crazed and had to be put down, and does so with a grin, it is immediately apparent that readers are dealing with an entirely different story. And when Malekith tells the hungry family to “Eat your neighbors with the blessing of the king,” the villain that will likely plague Thor for at least the next year takes on a level of menace and genuine threat that few villains have in modern Big Two comic books. Aaron’s mastery of these darker corridors of fantasy is one of his strengths, as Malekith’s sojourns of brutality into each of the other realms is just as fleeting as the Goddesses journeys through time, but feels more cohesive. Perez’s art in this half of the comic is solid throughout, but his skill with panel overlaps and backgrounds is where he excels most.

Wilson’s color choices in “The Tomorrow Girls” get reflected interestingly in “The Lord of the Realms,” and in particular the way he uses blue, indigo, and purple shades. In “The Tomorrow Girls,” these colors are paired with anything cosmic, joyous, or triumphant, with greens, yellows and browns being more or less the color of negative and villainous elements. Those colors transfer over to the second story, but their roles becomes reversed. Blues and purples are the colors of Malekith and the discord he sows, exemplified by his purple skin and the blue panel outlines of any scene in which he harms innocent beings. Those innocents, by contrast, are often colored with a focus on yellows and greens, best exemplified by the giant infant that Malekith kills in its crib. It’s an interesting inversion that helps to both distinguish the two stories and bridge them effectively.

Mighty Thor: At the Gates of Valhalla #1’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. It feels at times like some panels could have been cut in the scripting phase, but when Aaron gets to the parts of the story he is clearly building towards, everything clicks. Being a comic book filled with equal parts heart and malice, it manages to make what would be otherwise viewed as an inessential comic memorable. The strong and varied art throughout the issue is a major component in that memorability, with this comic book ultimately being one which will please the Thor devout as well as the Thor curious.

Credit: DC Comics

New Challengers #1
Written by Scott Snyder and Aaron Gillespie
Art by Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson, and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The Challengers of the Unknown get a properly weird and epic reintroduction to the DCU in the debut of New Challengers. Spinning out of Dark Knights: Metal, writers Scott Snyder and newcomer Aaron Gillespie give the Challengers a diverse new squad and a deadly incentive to challenge as their mysterious benefactor Prof gathers a new team to face the unknown for possibly nefarious purposes. Rendered with an energetic, cinematic style by Andy Kubert, inker Klaus Janson, and colorist Bran Anderson, who is quickly becoming one of DC’s secret artistic weapons, New Challengers #1 keeps the legacy of the “Challs” alive while saddling them with a new narrative hook that will surely add tension and stakes to the series overall. It’s a weird world out there, but the New Challengers stand ready to face said weirdness armed with style, pathos, and those super cool purple jumpsuits.

“Death ain’t nothing but a new adventure,” says Trina Alvarez’s nana. But little does she know that Trina soon gets to experience that firsthand. After dying at the tentacles of a alien creature in the middle of a Justice League battle in Gotham’s Narrows, Trina finds herself transported to the new Challengers Mountain, with a few other new Challengers, who have also died in some way or another, following close behind. The new team is greeted by Prof, who seems to have some sort of connection with the Challengers of old and takes the reins as the team’s handler.

He quickly gives the new team a rundown of their new station, which includes, of course, going on daring missions, protecting the world from various strange threats. Oh, and there is also the little matter of their new hourglass tattoos, which will start counting down to their death as soon as they step foot outside the mountain. Gillespie and Snyder even make good on this threat early as one of the Challengers, Spyral agent and one of the stars of the cover Robert Brink, decides to, ahem, challenge the Prof’s words and then finds himself a gooey puddle of human quickly thereafter.

Now some readers might be turned off by this new development and it is easy to see why. The Challengers as is had a pretty neat concept and this new addition might be seen as muddying the waters a bit. But to me, it adds even higher stakes to the team’s missions as they have to work even quicker to put down whatever creature they are facing or solve whatever new problem has popped up in order to fight another day. I also posit that it will cut the various team building work the writing duo will have to do as this new team, which is thankfully divided evenly between female and male team members, will have to learn to trust each other very quickly, which will hopefully keep the book focused on its characters and weirdness.

But beyond the diverse and relatable team and new “ticking clock” stakes, New Challengers is also blessed with good looks thanks to the art team of Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson, and Brad Anderson. Drawn by the steady, dynamic hand of Kubert, this debut toes the line well between emotive and epic thanks to Kubert’s attention to the characters and his expansive eye for scale. This duality is encapsulated perfectly in the team’s introduction to Challengers Mountain. As the Prof walks them through the sleek new space, given a classic science fiction sheen by inker Janson and colorist Anderson, they are faced with hundreds of past Challengers, immortalized by holographic effigies standing vigil in the Mountain. Not only is it one of the debut’s first “big” scenes, but Kubert gives each fallen Challenger a distinct look and veil of personality, matching the new variation of the team who is looking upon them.

Chock full of classic comic book visuals and a new narrative hook, New Challengers #1 is a worthy re-debut of the Challengers to the new paradigm of the DCU. Anchored by the consistently entertaining Scott Snyder and promising newcomer Aaron Gillespie, this new number one gives us a Challengers for a new era, one that reflects the audience reading it, stays true to the spirit of the Challengers, and even manages to weave some new narrative threads into the rich tapestry of the Challengers. Along with dynamic, vintage comic energies, New Challengers #1 is a solid win for DC’s “New Age of Heroes.”

Credit: Marvel Comics

Avengers #2
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Ed McGuinness, Mark Morales, Jay Leisten and David Curiel
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The first big relaunch of the C.B. Cebulski era has really sputtered out of the gate. Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness’ work here is almost so self-aware that it paralyzes itself into stagnation, forcing the creators to try to strike a balance between moving the Avengers forward as a concept while holding true to their history. Unfortunately, it’s a balance Aaron and McGuinness can't seem to find, despite quite literally putting those ideas right there on the page. The pieces are all in play, but they aren’t adding up to a coherent and enjoyable whole. It’s telling considering their Distinguished Competition is delivering a similar story and doing it better.

There’s a sense that Aaron really doesn’t have a handle on these characters yet. While the Big Three work fairly well, She-Hulk, Ghost Rider and Captain Marvel feel like afterthoughts - their roles in the story clearly carved out either to give them something to do that has absolutely no stakes or, as in Carol’s case, deliver exposition. I’ll be honest - this isn’t Aaron’s best effort. He’s unable to give us meaningful character drama or high-stakes superhero action. Instead, we get half measures of both that barely move the plot forward. Meanwhile, Loki’s narration serves as an odd metacommentary on the book. He asks what these heroes have to avenge, what purpose they have to be together, and that immediately takes a lot of air out of the book. Sure, the Dark Celestials seem like a threat, but the pacing doesn’t make them feel dangerous in the least. Aaron’s script kind of coasts on the idea that the reader knows that Celestials are a big deal, and that’s really not enough. Plus he tries to give us some throwback thought balloons that come out of left field a bit. Nothing in those thought balloons gives any additional necessary context to the character interactions or action on the page.

McGuinness and the rest of the art team do Aaron no favors. For an A-list artist, this is a surprisingly ugly book with some occasional bright spots. There is little flow to McGuinness’s paneling, as he seems more content to fill the pages with hulking figures (no pun intended) than to actually tell a story. Granted, it is a story that features a lot of punching, but there is no fight choreography, no joy in watching these heroes duke it out. McGuinness does a poor job of leading the reader’s eye through the pages and allowing the narrative to flow out of that. Instead, we get a book that almost looks like it’s full of unused cover ideas with text overlaid. And David Curiel’s colors just add to the muddy mess. The colors almost always seem a few shades too dark, blanketing the book in a dank film that mutes the action and blends the pages together. I get that these are the Dark Celestials that the Avengers are fighting, but Curiel never gives these pages any room to breathe.

Avengers has been a disappointment so far. Aaron and McGuinness just can’t get on track. McGuinness’ exaggerated art and lack of meaningful background work makes the book feel small when Aaron’s script needs it to feel huge. Aaron isn’t utilizing his characters effectively at all and the old-school touches are more groan-worthy than exciting in the context of a book that can’t figure out what its doing. The worst part is that this book isn’t really about anything. We’re two issues in, and past getting the old team back together, it’s unclear why we’re supposed to care about these characters and the things they’re doing. This creative team probably doesn’t have to do much to course-correct, but they need to do it soon.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League: No Justice #2
Written by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV and Joshua Williamson
Art by Francis Manapul, Marcus To and Hi-Fi
Lettering by AndWorld Design
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

There’s no shortage of ambition to Scott Snyder, James Tynion, Joshua Williamson, Francis Manapul and Marcus To’s Justice League: No Justice, as a collection of DC’s finest heroes and villains have been thrown together to stop unknown dangers who have breached the Source Wall. But even with an extra four story pages, this series can’t help but struggle under the weight of its lofty aspirations - while the creative team does admirable work juggling its sprawling 21-member cast, the League’s actual journey still feels a little shaky.

The plan was simple - bring together DC’s most recognizable characters from across their various franchises and change their lineup with a Moneyball-style shakeup. And there are plenty of moments where Snyder, Tynion and Williamson make good on the real draw of that premise - watching characters play off each other. It’s clear there are already some favorites amongst the writing team, with Batman and Lex Luthor taking the lion’s share of the forward momentum, while Lobo and Beast Boy immediately click as one of those off-kilter combinations that somehow works swimmingly. Additionally, each League squad gets new objectives which could yield big benefits down the road, ranging from a jailbreak of the galaxy’s deadliest criminals to waking a planet of Coluan ghosts.

But that said, the story does unravel a bit if you think too heavily on the mechanics behind it - which unfortunately No Justice reminds us of repeatedly. The idea of the League being banded around four energy sources - giant trees that feed on entropy, mystery, wonder and wisdom - feels, well, a little inorganic, disconnected from a lot of real emotion. There are embers of a theme of working through general mistrust - the core Leaguers needing to trust strangers, neophytes and supervillains in their midst - but for the most part, even hardcases like Batman have quickly accepted working side-by-side with stone-cold killers. Additionally, the balance between the teams can’t help but stumble at times - Team Entropy continues to generate the most sparks, while Teams Wonder and Wisdom struggle to get much page space. There is a subplot featuring Green Arrow and Amanda Waller back on Earth that ultimately feels like dead weight, spending four crucial pages explaining why more heroes aren’t on deck.

While it can’t help but be a little disappointing that Francis Manapul needed backup only two issues in, he and Marcus To play off one another nicely, with the differences in style being noticeable but not necessarily deal-breaking. Manapul’s sense of rendering might be my favorite thing in the book, as he and Hi-Fi do some interesting and dramatic things with shadows, particularly with Batman and the Martian Manhunter. And to Manapul’s credit, he juggles a gigantic cast admirably - there are certainly pages that can’t help but feel cramped due to multiple characters and multiple word balloons being in a single panel, but when he’s able to split his pages up with different character reactions, it’s strong work. To can’t help but feel a little less refined than Manapul, with his more open sense of linework making Hi-Fi’s colors seem a little flatter and more cartoony - it’s most noticeably different during the Green Arrow interlude, featuring a number of cast-off Leaguers stuck on the sidelines.

Justice League: No Justice is the kind of series that will pique your interest because the central concept is such a strong one - in many ways, it’s the kind of thinking that created the Justice League of America as a franchise in the first place. If you have a shared universe full of heroes, why wouldn’t you put all the best ones in one book? The lineup here is rock-solid, even if the execution behind it occasionally has some glitches - there’s enough of the back-and-forth characterization to make this a compelling read, but a stronger balance between the four squads might go a long way to making a good book even greater.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Quicksilver: No Surrender #1
Written by Saladin Ahmed
Art by Eric Nguyen and Rico Renzi
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Eric Nguyen and Rico Renzi are the stars of Quicksilver #1. The world Saladin Ahmed introduces with his script - Pietro Maximoff trapped and alone in a world of unsettling stillness - is executed with a perfect, haunting beauty by their inks and colors. Pietro himself is the only speaking character in this issue, his adventures, misadventures, and the mysteries of his predicament expounded on largely through his own ongoing monologue but made truly engaging through the incredibly stylized feel Nguyen and Renzi bring to the book.

Nguyen’s lines feel thin and insubstantial; there’s a hazy quality to his artwork, an indistinctness to the faces and features of this world that lends to a surreal sci-fi vibe that suits a character with Pietro’s skillset and the specific, Scarlet Witch related aspects of his unusual predicament. More than usual in an art-based medium, visual styles are a critical element to speedster comics: capturing the velocity, the urgency of movement, and in cases like Quicksilver #1, the uncomfortable and creeping horror of high speed gone wrong. Thanks to Nguyen’s delicate touch and Renzi’s eye for color (and the absence of it), Quicksilver is one of the most eye-popping speedster comics on the shelves in a while.

Renzi delivers psychedelic neons throughout the opening pages, making Pietro feel less a part of the world and more a man trapped on a high speed bullet train, plowing through beautiful scenery too fast to truly enjoy it. When things finally seem to have slowed down enough around him for Pietro to have a good time for once, Renzi turns to a world sapped of color but not starkly black and white; backgrounds become a muted stormcloud gray, and the lone pops of color as Pietro hops from frame to frame begin to feel increasingly lonely. A shot of Pietro, posed like The Thinker atop a library’s lion guardian, is a perfect, poignant encapsulation of what a stellar team this is across the board, from script to art.

In Quicksilver, Ahmed explores themes that are familiar both to his previous work and to speedster comic books generally in a way that still manages to feel fresh and accessible to new readers. The Maximoffs have a long and complicated family tree, but Ahmed’s expository introduction is extremely succinct and offers just enough context that both longtime fans and newcomers picking up the title out of a movie-inspired curiosity or interested in Ahmed’s other titles will feel right at home in this debut issue, no prior knowledge of No Surrender necessary.

But, as accessible as it is, this issue does feel somewhat hollow: there’s a problem to be solved, and a villain to be vanquished, but the profound disconnect Pietro feels from the rest of the world seeps through to the narrative; it’s tough to describe, but while Pietro’s loneliness is deeply relatable, his predicament winds up feeling inescapably hopeless. It doesn’t feel like Quicksilver’s going anywhere any time soon, and that lack of forward momentum in a world that’s so unsettlingly lonely raises the question of whether a lone Pietro in the face of a seemingly silent threat is enough to carry the emotional weight of a full series.

Credit: Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine #36
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The 21st Century reboot of Battlestar Galactica frequently returned to a turn of phrase: “All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.” It suggests an inevitability, a cycle that is destined to repeat without deviation. That no matter what the characters opted to do with themselves wouldn’t lead to a different destination being reached in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, the characters of Battlestar Galactica weren’t gods, but as The Wicked + The Divine has repeatedly demonstrated, having that power doesn’t make it any easier.

The Wicked + The Divine made its intended cycle clear from the release of its first issue. Every 90 years, 12 gods return as young people. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are all dead. It’s happening now. It’s happening again. The one-shot specials released have helped to detail how other cycles have collapsed along the way, even if the end result is the same, but it’s this issue which fully explores the microcosm of deviation.

On a similar note, there’s always been an underlying formalism to the series; the 1,2,3,4 of a finger snap which coalesced in the club-set Issue #8. This issue moves in step to a different beat. The year is 3862 B.C., the setting is the Upper Nile, the scenario concerns Ananke and that pantheon’s Persephone. The creative team frame this in a way that will be familiar to readers as Kieron Gillen’s script makes use of dialogue heard when Laura underwent the transformation back in issue eleven. That said, the scene is not a carbon copy as Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson opt to change the layout and framing of the sequence, although both contain a plume of smoke wafting in the air around them. Then this version of Persephone dies. Followed by the 3770 B.C. instance, the 3678 B.C. and the 3586 B.C. occurrences. The Persephone of 3495 B.C. fights back, and so on and so forth.

An issue of two halves - the second concerns the present-day goings on as Laura comes to terms with Baal’s revelation in a sequence also dealing heavily in flashback - this is the most formally inventive of the two. The deaths just detailed occur over a single, six-panel page and the entire sequence makes use of this layout from this point onwards with the story jumping ahead by almost a century every single time. It is intentionally repetitious, shining a spotlight on the relationship between Ananke and the various Persephones over the many years, but offers repeated variation and not just in terms of how the characters respond to one another each time. These scenes occur all around the world from the Upper Nile to China to Central America to the British Isles and the creative team races from one to the next.

Yet despite these being just brief glimpses at so many different eras in history across millennia, The Wicked + The Divine also puts in the work into properly earning such an audacious sequence. The issue credits Dani V as a research assistant and their efforts are abundantly felt from the settings to the costuming. There’s a shift between each panel, when the gods’ positions move across continents, but when they return years down the line, it’s possible to see styles that are region-specific and gradually evolving. McKelvie is one of the best artists working today and that he depicts clothing which feels tailor-made for his characters is one of the qualities that qualifies him for that status.

Of course, his work is bolstered by Matt Wilson’s palette and that’s no different here. Look at any of these panels and it’s immediately clear how his work helps to flesh these out further and bring them to life. Each environment depicted feels different, a result of how adept he is at switching up his colours and that he has to do it as frequently as this issue demands is a true celebration of his talents. These efforts all come together to form the final collaboration, that it works so well is a direct result of everyone pulling their weight.

It doesn’t feel appropriate to properly discuss the narrative on display in the back-half of the issue concerning Baal, though it would also be wrong to not pay it some consideration here. It too is an examination of the lengths that people will go to in the hopes of more time, just as it starts to catch up with. That desire runs through the first half of the issue, but encompasses a more personal quality when linked to a character known for over 30 issues at this point, even when the series has just altered our perception of them. It fuels Baal like a furnace, and that intensity is expelled outwards onto the pages here, a seeping red taking hold of his retelling with bold blocks of the color having just as much impact as the series’ previous use of purely black pages; Clayton Cowles’ lettering seemingly burned into them.

This issue is likely to be remembered for its conceptual qualities, but this second half is a vital part of the entire book. In fact, the issue’s real strength is that it makes use of this concept without being beholden to it. The creative team know how many instances they can make use of and don’t attempt to stretch it out further than it can sustain, thus having space to progress everything that’s going on with the modern-day pantheon. Nevertheless, this formally inventive issue is illustrative of how well thought-out and considered this story is. Gillen, McKelvie, Wilson and Cowles know where this is heading. With each issue, each subsequent twist or reveal, the narrative and preceding events re-click into place due to new context. Even as the series moves towards its endgame, heading for the conclusion to a cycle of life and death made clear right at the start, what makes causes it to be so thrilling is that it still feels brimming with narrative potential despite that.

Time is luck. The gods are running out of both.

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