Best Shots Reviews: CHAMPIONS #24, RED HOOD & OUTLAWS #26, ICEMAN #1, FANTASTIC FOUR #2

Red Hood
Credit: Yasmine Putri (DC Comics)
Credit: Sean Izaakse (Marvel Comics)

Champions #24
Written by Jim Zub
Art by Sean Izaakse, Marclo Menyz and Erick Arciniega
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Champions delivers a poignant 'very special episode' this week, as Miles Morales is rocked by the news of an active shooter situation at the Brooklyn Visions Academy. Rather than being overly sappy or exploitive, writer Jim Zub focuses tightly on Miles and his team going through the stages of grief in the wake as they try to square their superheroic existence with an all-too-real tragedy. While this issue has its flaws and its own haziness in theme, Champions #24’s heart at least seems to be in the right place, using its superheroic protagonists as an emotional spotlight on a very human subject.

The threat of gun violence is, unfortunately, something we in the real world have to deal with every day. But what happens when this tragedy strikes a world of heroes and marvels? That is the question that Champions #24 aims to answer. And the answer that it comes to is that superheroes react largely the same as us regular people do; with grief, guilt, and sometimes even cynicism. Mostly focusing on Miles Morales as our audience surrogate, Jim Zub’s script doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel or attempt to prosthelytize in either direction on the issue of guns and school shootings. Instead, Zub’s story focuses squarely on the ground, taking Miles and his team through the process of internalizing tragedy and detailing how they can move on as characters and as a super-team.

This is where Zub’s light touch as a writer really shines through. He seems keenly aware of how contentious the issue is - how raw this nerve will be no matter when we’re talking about it - so he instead keeps the focus on our heroes. This in turn allows Zub to draw strength from their positions and emotional states in the wake of the shooting. He gives everyone ample opportunity to state their stances and to find a common ground with each other as the socially conscious superheroes that the title has presented them as thus far.

But while the whole team gets a platform at some point in the issue’s page count, it is Miles Morales and Kamala Kahn that stand as the issue’s main focal points. Zub gives them both justified and heart-wrenching standpoints in the aftermath. Kamala is shaken, but optimistic, knowing that their position in the community can be used to draw strength from the public and their teammates in order to recover. Miles, however, is more unsteady. Having missed the shooting, he doesn’t understand how he can have these powers and still not stop real-world horrors. But instead of lashing out, Zub allows Miles healthy coping methods like seeking out counseling, reconnecting with his school, and being honest with his team about his fraught emotional state.

It also doesn’t hurt that Champions #24 is handled by an art team that understands the need for heart over flashiness. Penciller Sean Izaakse along with colorists Marclo Menyz and Erick Arciniega really nail the down-to-earth tone of the story and handle the character’s raw emotional states well. Though most of the issue’s action surrounds characters standing around talking or seeking some sort of comfort in sharing, Izaakse’s usual kineticism is replaced by a more somber, intimate tone, especially in the scenes of Miles talking to the Visions Academy counselor and during his heart-to-heart with Kamala. Made complete by the warm, naturalistic colors of Menyz and Arciniega, Champions #24 really ends up looking like the “world outside our window” that Marvel wanted for this issue.

But this issue still isn’t without flaws. One major one being the questionable title of the issue, “Trigger Warning.” Now it could be argued that Zub was using the title as a legitimate trigger warning for its violent subject matter - something that, if true, would be appreciated - but given the title’s spotty past dealing with millennial terminology, it’s hard not to see this as a big misstep that can take readers immediately out of the story. But even beyond the tone-deaf title, you can’t help but notice the incongruity of a group of superheroes, who have dealt with all manner of armed thugs and henchmen, coming up so short in the face of gun violence - in particular, Kamala Khan’s speech of “hope or despair” comes across as especially hollow in the wake of actual high schoolers taking concrete action against the NRA. Even the actual stakes to the characters themselves - readers of Brian Bendis’s run on Miles Morales will recognize one of the shooting victims- is more or less walked back within this book’s 20 pages, ultimately cheapening one of the more emotional beats of the issue.

Comic books with a clear central message can be a tricky tightrope to walk. Especially one about a topic as incendiary as gun violence. But despite its limitations as a 20-page story, Champions #24 walks that aforementioned tightrope with empathy and emotion, using the most optimistic of Marvel’s superheroes to shine a light on a subject that all too often hits too close to home. Jim Zub, Sean Izaakse, Marclo Menyz, and Erick Arciniega might be dealing with one of the worst things that could happen to a community, but they never let that deter the power of said community and the enduring comfort that can stem from superhero comics.

Credit: Pete Woods (DC Comics)

Red Hood and the Outlaws #26
Written by Scott Lobdell
Art by Pete Woods
Lettering by Troy Peteri
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Now that’s how you sell a costume.

I’ll admit I was as skeptical as the next guy when I heard that Jason Todd was going to be losing the red helmet he’s been sporting since his resurrection nearly 15 years ago - but writer Scott Lobdell and artist Pete Woods have worked hard to turn readers into believers with Red Hood and the Outlaws #26. What’s perhaps most surprising about this book is that on its surface, it’s very much your standard superhero beat-’em-up, but Lobdell’s pacing and Woods’ terrific artwork make this a book that is punching well out of its weight class.

Banned from Gotham by Batman and bereft of his partners-in-crimefighting, it makes sense for Lobdell and Woods to shake up Jason Todd’s status quo, particularly after the ominous way the previous issue ended for Roy Harper, who already heads up a short list for possible casualties in the upcoming Heroes in Crisis. Now brooding in the shadows of a midnight bus, Jason feels darker than we’ve seen him in quite some time - and that mindset proves to be the perfect pretext for Jason to stumble across a wounded FBI agent and a group of criminal bikers. It’s not reinventing the wheel in terms of plot, as Lobdell pulls out some bottled trash talk before moving directly into the fisticuffs, but at the same time, it also feels like the stuff of a ‘90s action movie, light on pretension and heavy on the crowd-pleasing spectacle.

But that also has a lot to do with Woods. Producing his own pencils, inks and colors, Woods’ artwork has never looked better - like I said before, I was deeply skeptical of the Red Hood redesign, but Woods does a terrific job at selling it, reminding me almost as a cross between Azrael and the Scarlet Spider. Woods plays a lot with the shadows that consume Jason’s face and the bits of red that pop from underneath that crimson cowl - perhaps more subtly, he also has bulked up Jason a bit, giving him a bruiser-style contrast from Dick Grayson’s graceful physique, Tim Drake’s more everyman build, and Damian Wayne’s teenage frame. Woods also does stellar work with his layouts, churning out seven-panel fight sequences that seem effortless - and perhaps more importantly, Woods’ colors are gorgeous, as he pulls off a nighttime setting while sacrificing exactly zero energy.

Of course, a book that has zero frills like Red Hood and the Outlaws will likely draw some naysayers as well - if you’re looking for deeper meaning here, or really anything other than your boilerplate action, you’re likely barking up the wrong tree. Lobdell isn’t phoning it in, but instead is stripping things down for new readers - it’s a new costume, new outlook for Jason Todd, and it behooves this creative team to give people a chance to get up to speed. And sure, there’s the occasional clunky line here and there - you can sense Lobdell pushing against the boundaries of what editorial will likely let him say, even if there’s a bit here or there that might come across as more juvenile than badass - but like I said before, once you frame this in the aesthetic of action films from yesteryear, you’ll likely find yourself having a great time.

With so many other Bat-books on the stand, it’s easy to find yourself asking why a book like Red Hood and the Outlaws continues to exist. But I’d add that Lobdell and Woods actually make a compelling argument in their favor with an issue like this, which not only provides the elasticity of Red Hood as a concept, but also is a stirring example of an accessible gateway book that’s easy to revamp and recast whenever it needs. There are plenty of people who might see Jason Todd’s new costume as a cash-grab - and real talk, given how sales attrition works in comic books, sometimes you need to goose sales from time to time - but Lobdell and Woods do an incredible job justifying it with some top-notch artwork.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Iceman #1
Written by Sina Grace
Art by Nathan Stockman and Frederic Blee
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Sina Grace’s Iceman returns with a new volume that seeks to dive deeper into Bobby Drake’s journey as an openly gay mutant living in a world that hates and fears him a bit more than it did a few years ago. Teaming up with Bishop on a mission in the Morlock tunnels underneath New York, Grace is looking to explore Bobby’s privilege by using the mutant/Morlock divide as a stand-in for LGBTQ issues. On the whole, it’s easy to see Grace’s perspective here and understand the story that he’s trying to tell, but his flaws as a writer are evident. Meanwhile, artist Nathan Stockman joins Grace this time around, with somewhat mixed results. It’s hard to tell where Stockman might just being taking direction from the script or if his own storytelling choices just don’t fit the script, making Iceman a somewhat uneven read.

If there’s one thing that Grace excels at, it’s writing Bobby Drake specifically. His witty repartee with other characters and sometimes groan-worthy dad jokes feel very much in line with the character. Grace did run into some trouble in the first volume where almost every character spoke with that voice, and while he’s toned that down considerably here, the dialogue also hampers his pacing. In order to get his point across, Grace overloads the action sequences with words, dramatically slowing down the reading experience when it should be much quicker.

Yet Iceman’s special status as one of the more political X-Men titles feels clunky in this relaunch. For a story that focuses on Iceman stopping a new mutant massacre in the Morlock tunnels, Bobby having to confront his privilege as a mutant that is a member of the X-Men is something that’s resolved fairly quickly and without much push back. Bobby doesn’t seem to learn anything, and when he throws out a “safe space” pronouncement it reads about as naturally as your grandma talking about the new iPhone. Grace generally has Bobby’s own voice down pat, but in the context of trying to tell a story that disappears, and the tone of the book shifts into something more akin to an afterschool special.

Grace wants this to be a story about Bobby understanding that some people live differently by choice or as a means of survival, and that’s okay. Not everyone wants to be one of the X-Men. It’s Grace trying to use the mutant metaphor to illustrate Bobby’s privilege as an attractive, cis, white, gay man who also passes for a regular human when he’s not using his powers. The villains are laughable because they’re supposed to be, but the lesson that Bobby learns is communicated with about as much grace as a ton of bricks.

As mentioned earlier, Nathan Stockman handles the linework in this issue, and it’s a mixed bag. He generally gives us a good sense of setting and he turns in some solid action shots. His Bishop in particular is inspired, especially as he uses his powers to convert energy into his own offensive blast. And Stockman gives us some really playful interactions between Iceman and other characters at a club or at the end of the fight with an iced-up villain. But Stockman frequently gets crowded out by Grace’s dialogue, which keeps him from loosening up artistically and saps any energy out of his art that might be there. And this might be a bit of a minor quibble, but Iceman’s ice slides are an excellent way to guide a reader’s eye on the page, but unfortunately Stockman’s shot choices in those moments are almost never in concert with the flow of the page and the lettering. It’s maybe a missed opportunity to speed up the action despite large swathes of dialogue.

Fans of Grace’s previous run on Iceman are going to find a story that feels like a continuation of what came before. I think the direction that Grace is taking Bobby is interesting, because it’s forcing the character to grow and understand others as he comes to understand himself more. However, Grace can’t seem to strike a balance between getting his point across and telling a good story - offering little more than half-hearted “Mutant Massacre” redux to couch his lesson in. On one hand, that’s part of the joke, but the lack of finesse is obvious and will grate on some readers’ sensibilities. Nathan Stockman is a great fit for the character, but the issue definitely reads like he was a bit handcuffed by the script. I’d hope, given the characters teased at the end of the issue, that he’ll get a lot more room to show of Stockman’s talents. While fans of Grace’s previous run will enjoy the continued adventures of Bobby Drake in Iceman #1, there’s enough flaws in the execution that may leave new readers cold.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Fantastic Four #2
Written by Dan Slott
Art by Sara Pichelli, Elisabetta D’Amico and Marte Gracia
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Today’s Fantastic Four #2 slams into one of the tough lines to walk within superhero comic books as a genre: balancing the mundane comedies of “regular folks” with the outrageous circumstances required to create real stakes for these larger-than-life figures. For as long as we’ve been waiting to discover the fate of the Richards family and the Future Foundation, Fantastic Four #2 induces too much tonal whiplash to make this much-anticipated reveal particularly satisfying.

While the Thing and the Human Torch have wandered the Marvel Universe post-Secret Wars looking for direction and meaning, it turns out their extended family didn’t die after all - instead, the Richardses found themselves between universes, slingshotting across the multiverse and creating new worlds with the combined gifts of Franklin Richards and the Molecule Man. Franklin invents the worlds, at times taking requests from his Foundation siblings in a charming and gorgeously illustrated sequence, and Owen’s abilities helps him bring them to life so the Foundation can explore. It’s the Fantastic Four at their best - doing science and exploring the unknown, together, in the way only they can (even as Franklin helpfully letting the indigenous population know he’s their god, in a very Reed-like moment).

All fun world-building exercises must come to an end, though, and all at once the FF finds themselves targeted by entropy herself, The Griever At The End Of All Things, who does not take kindly to the idea of someone inventing worlds out of nothing. It’s almost possible to pinpoint a moment during her introduction where it feels like writer Dan Slott recognized he needed to get the Fantastic Four on the same panel of a Fantastic Four comic book sooner rather than later, and the issue’s pace takes a turn for breakneck, with even the characters themselves shouting that they don’t have time to process the scale of the destruction hot on their heels before diving into a quippy villain confrontation sequence.

Still, exploring the multiverse has its charms, and Sara Pichelli’s expressive art (aided by Elisabetta D’Amico’s inks) and Marte Gracia’s gorgeous, otherworldly colors go a long way towards fleshing out some of Franklin’s other creations we don’t get to spend more than a moment with - the level of design lends a sense of scale to the issue that sells the sheer scale of the destruction perhaps even further than the script might intend.

It’s that world-building that makes the fallout of this issue a bit weird to read. The crux of this issue is that one of the most powerful minds in the multiverse has been adding universe after universe to the greater Marvel tapestry, and, very suddenly, they’re all gone, without having a lot of time to explore the greater ramifications of what this means. Sure, we get a brief beat of Franklin Richards mourning the losses of billions, but it’s undercut by Dragon Man ranking his power set compared to the Hulk and Silver Surfer - even Valeria’s decision to scuttle the ship to rescue an alien Namor analogue comes across as a little goofy, despite being the setup for a massive cliffhanger that promises to raise the stakes even further.

But ultimately, it’s this push and pull between the everyday and the cosmically epic that makes Fantastic Four still feel like a fractured read. From the light-hearted family romp, the existential threat, to the moment the band finally gets back together, the effect of any one excellent moment is undermined by the next, right up until the final dramatic reveal, and while those individual excellent moments could potentially be revisited in satisfying ways in future issues, their execution in Fantastic Four #2 still leaves something to be desired.

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