Best Shot Reviews: NEBULA #1, HARLEY QUINN & BIRDS OF PREY #1, X-MEN #6

X-Men #6
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Nebula #1
Written by Vita Ayala
Art by Claire Roe and Mike Spicer
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

When the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie was announced, who would have expected Nebula to wind up becoming one of the most emotionally complex members of the team? Yet as the Marvel Cinematic Universe unfolded, Nebula’s characterization only deepened - bringing her even further away from her comic book counterpart. With that in mind, it’s a no-brainer for Marvel to update the character to better fit the popular mold - and while they have to stretch to get there, writer Vita Ayala and artist Claire Roe deliver a solid story despite the character’s murky status quo.

In a lot of ways, the best part of Nebula #1 is also the worst part of Nebula #1 - namely, that the character is such a blank slate that there’s little that makes this feel like a Nebula story. With Nebula off to steal a priceless alien weapons technology that will enable her to game out encounters with an upgraded probability sense, there’s a lot of vibes similar to Gail Simone and Benjamin Percy’s recent work with Domino, or even the classic Cassandra Cain Batgirl stories. That said, there are a lot worse places to draw inspiration from - and in certain ways, I almost think it’s a smart tactical move. If the goal is to shift Nebula’s characterization from one-dimensional space warlord to a more three-dimensional and conflicted antiheroine, incorporating some of these more familiar components into the storytelling machinery is a great way to begin that change in an exciting way.

And you definitely can’t accuse Ayala of skimping on the excitement. This feels like one of their more action-heavy scripts in recent memory, and I think that’s to Nebula’s benefit - there’s a lot of tension and pressure straight from the jump, as Nebula’s on the clock to get this new technology embedded in her cybernetic nervous system right away. And while it requires a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, the way Ayala gets to field-test Nebula’s glitchy new additions against the threat of Devos is a fun bit that gets to showcase our protagonist’s scrappiness and creativity when her back is against the wall.

But I’d say the real MVP of this book has to be artist Claire Roe. She brings a sharp edge to Nebula’s features that I think really fits such a prickly protagonist - I see a lot of similarities to artists like Chris Samnee in Roe’s rendering, which is only a good thing for us as readers. As far as expressiveness goes, Roe does a good job, but seems to lean heavily into the gleeful villainy of the character - but given the way she portrays Ayala’s status-changing cliffhanger, I think we’ll see a lot more emotional range from Roe soon. But let’s be real - given how action-oriented this first issue is, Roe is given a real meal of a script, and the way she portrays Nebula’s fight choreography means this book packs a nice punch. Colorist Mike Spicer leans a little traditional for my liking with his color palette at the cost of some atmosphere, but like Roe, his work takes a slight shift towards the finale, making me wonder if we’ll be seeing the art style shift and evolve as Nebula’s story continues.

While Nebula #1 isn’t necessarily a game-changer for either the character or any of the creatives involved, this is definitely a solidly constructed actioner that will leave you entertained - and for fans of Karen Gillen’s portrayal of the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that’s exactly what they’re going to be looking for. One could certainly make the argument that before you reinvent the wheel with a character like this, you’ve got to establish a baseline, and I do think Ayala and Roe accomplish that here. Nebula #1 isn’t necessarily the upgrade that the credits page promises, but it does look like a promising first step.

Credit: Amanda Conner (DC/Black Label)

Harley Quinn and The Birds of Prey #1
Written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti
Art by Amanda Conner and Paul Mounts
Lettering by John J. Hill
Published by DC Black Label
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

It’s been a bumpy road for Harley Quinn since she became DC’s answer to Deadpool. Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti have worked tirelessly to expand her supporting cast and give her some characterization in the larger DCU outside of Gotham, Batman, and the Joker with some success. Not every writer has expanded on their ideas, but Conner and Palmiotti are arguably the most iconic creators to work with Harley since Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. With Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) hitting theaters, it makes sense that we’d get some sort of R-rated comic book offering for fans wanting more than just the theater experience. However, Conner and Palmiotti are stuck in second gear — taking too much time explaining the nuances of the world they’ve built rather than getting on with a good story.

The quick facts are that Harley and Ivy are together. Harley lives in Coney Island and runs a hotel. She has a gang of other Harleys (Harlem Harley, Carli Quinn, etc.). She has that beaver that talks to her, and she’s friends with Power Girl. But when the hotel gets burned down by the shady mortgage and loan company that Harley secured a loan from, the Clown Princess of Crime wants revenge. Unfortunately, getting there is a slog. It takes so long to get there that a big chunk of the book is dedicated to catching readers up on the creators’ previous work before moving forward with the plot.

And even when the plot does start to move, it is coupled with such juvenile attempts at comedy that I’m unsure who the target audience is supposed to be. Conner and Palmiotti’s humor lacks sophistication - like Harley calling Superman “Pooperman” - and that doesn’t really jive with the Black Label marker. Sure, there is stronger language and arguably more opportunities for Harley to be scantily clad - I don’t think Conner is really leaning in on that more than she has before - but this hardly feels like a mature readers’ book.

The stakes feel relatively low, and the other Birds of Prey characters essentially make glorified cameos in this first issue, if they show up at all. With little in the way of setup beyond convenience, Huntress and Harley team up for a fight on a train, but Cassandra Cain only shows up for the equivalent of a page before Renee Montoya appears on the very last page. (Black Canary, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen.) It’s a puzzling decision to lean so heavily on just one character from an honest-to-goodness feature film, and I think the reason why is because Conner and Palmiotti see their take on Harley here as much more endearing than she actually is — they give her a sort of slapstick Looney Tunes nature that robs the book of any real emotional stakes and undercuts the violence. Conner’s art is suited to the book - there’s definitely a physicality to the linework and she nails some great expressions throughout the issue = but something about the total package just falls flat.

Fans of the Conner/Palmiotti run of Harley Quinn will find more to chew on than those jumping in with no familiarity. If you’re someone looking for more Harley after seeing her new film or just curious about the character, you be better served by the beginning of their run than this awkward attempt to summarize their previous work and then move forward with it

Credit: Marvel Comics

X-Men #6
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Matteo Buffagni and Sunny Gho
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Everyone wants something. In Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men, most of the mutants want what Charles Xavier wants — or at least what he tells them that he wants. But while this mutant leader wants a better future for members of his race, he schemes and manipulates in ways hidden from those who have almost blindly put their trust in him. Take the shapechanging mutant Mystique, for example: the one thing she wants is the one thing that Xavier will not give her - her lover Destiny, a mutant who can see the future but would destroy everything that Xavier is trying to accomplish. In X-Men #6, Hickman and artist Matteo Buffagni reveal more of the games that Xavier and Mystique are playing as they manipulate one another to get what they want without giving away any of their leverage over the future of Krakoa.

Buffagni and colorist Sunny Gho don’t have the pop glitz of Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva, and Marte Gracia nor do they have the pent-up energy of Leinil Yu, but none of those artists could as effectively capture the simmering emotions at play in these characters, particularly in Mystique. As the star of this issue, Mystique carries the spiritual weight of this story as she’s the snake in Xavier’s Garden of Eden. Or perhaps she’s the Eve of this story, trying to gain something that the more godlike Xavier doesn’t want her to have. In House of X/Powers of X, it was established that Destiny could see behind the veil of Krakoa to catch glimpses of what was really happening, that she could bring everything crashing down around Xavier. As she’s the one mutant that Xavier hasn’t resurrected, he uses that to manipulate Mystique, to try and bend her to his “benevolent” will.

There are multiple aspects to Mystique at play in this issue and Buffagni captures her skills, her cunning and her frustrations in Krakoa. With a clean, almost minimalistic line, he doesn’t give a lot of distractions or disguises for Mystique, a shape-changing mutant, to hide behind. He captures her frustrations at having to play Xavier’s games. She also knows that she’s being manipulated, and Buffagni draws her spirit but also the pain and loss that drives her. Gho’s subdued coloring over Buffagni creates a longing atmosphere that reflects Mystique’s own desires. As everyone has secrets in Hickman’s comics, he reveals a big one here, establishing that Mystique wants more than her lover back - she wants her wife resurrected. In terms of representation in popular culture, it’s a huge moment for Hickman and Buffagni to take this often-implied relationship and finally commit it to canon - and even just for the context of this story, it allows Buffagni and Gho to show a Mystique who’s fighting for something more than just her own self interest; she’s fighting for the life of the most important person in the world to her.

Carving his story out of subplots, each issue of Hickman’s X-Men has concentrated on a different threat facing Xavier’s mutants. This issue returns to the Orchis Forge and their fight for mankind against the mutants, but they’re not the main threat in these pages. Mystique plays along with the politics of Krakoa because it suits her needs and desires. Hickman writes her from a place of ambiguity - while her motives are anything but ambiguous, he plants enough seeds of doubt in Xavier’s machinations. As Hickman’s long game plays out, it’s already becoming murky about who are the heroes and who are the villains. And planted firmly in the middle of that doubt is Mystique. This issue hints that ultimately she will be the one to burn down the dream of Krakoa, and we’ll need to keep reading to figure out if that’s a good thing or not.

This issue injects a nice bit of personality into Hickman’s X-Men. As he’s explored the post HoX/PoX status quo, the X-Men have largely operated as pod people, believing, dying and being resurrected in the dream. Mystique dies and is resurrected, but she’s anything but a believer. Hickman and Buffagni portray her as the disruption in this carefully constructed system. The future will tell whether she’s on the side of the angels or whether she’s the agent of destruction in this story. But either way, Mystique is the one character so far in this series who has shown any evidence of being able to match wits with Hickman’s Xavier and stand up to him.

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