A Teen Titans: Damian Knows Best Review – A Return to Glory?

TITLE: Teen Titans, Vol. 1: Damian Knows Best
AUTHOR: Benjamin Percy
PENCILLERS: Jonboy Meyers, Diogenes Nieves, Khoi Pham
COLLECTS: Teen Titans #15Teen Titans Rebirth #1
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $16.99
RELEASED:
June 14, 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

The Teen Titans have had a pretty awesome run on television over the last decade and a half. The comics, on the other hand? They’ve been a mixed bag. But this new Teen Titans series under the DC Rebirth banner offered yet another fresh start for one of the most iconic and prolific superhero teams in all of comics. A chance to make the Teen Titans great again!

I wouldn’t call Damian Knows Best a great book. But these still manage to be the best Teen Titans comics we’ve gotten in several years. Since 2011 at the very least.

In the wake of his 13th birthday, Damian Wayne, a.k.a. Robin, summons his own team of young heroes to combat a threat from his past. Damian’s grandfather, Ra’s al Ghul, has sent his own team of young assassins after the Boy Wonder. Their mission? Either bring Damian back into the League of Assassins or kill him. But as his new teammates are about to find out, Damian isn’t one to make things easy.

Damian should have been on the Teen Titans a long time ago. That last really good Teen Titans story I alluded to above? It sees Damian barge in and briefly anoint himself team leader. Why it took so long to get him back on the team is beyond me. Sticking a character as abrasive as Damian in a team environment is a natural source for tension and conflict. Making it a team of adolescents ups the ante even more. It’s an update this book has desperately needed since…well, 2011.

Perennial team members Starfire, Beast Boy, and Raven are back. I’ve lamented previously about how the series can’t move away from them, presumably because DC wants to match the cartoon show. Plus, they’re synonymous with the iconic Wolfman/Perez era. Swapping one or two of them out for newer characters might open the door for even more new possibilities. That’s what a relaunch is supposed to be about, after all. We at least get a little of that with the inclusion of Kid Flash.

However, Ben Percy does a commendable job turning up the teen angst with most of our heroes. The common theme among them is the feeling they don’t belong anywhere. Like so many young people, they feel isolated.. That commonality that makes them feel like they belong together, instead of being lumped together for no real reason (other than editorial mandate). The opening sequence with Beast Boy is one of the character’s best in quite some time. As he behaves in his typical animated and boisterous fashion, the narration captions highlight his inner turmoil, most notably over the “death” of Tim Drake. Throw in how wonderfully drawn and colored the whole thing is, and you’ve got a knock-out intro.

That’s one of the things DC has failed to do with Teen Titans for so many years: Really amp up the teen element effectively, making this book considerably different from Justice League and the other team books out there. Need an example? Look what Mark Waid is doing in Champions. All those characters feel like teenagers trying to find their way in the world and blaze a new trail that’s different from the previous generation’s. Teen Titans doesn’t have that rebellious streak to it. But having these characters feel young and a little less sure of themselves is damn sure a step in the right direction.

Most of the Demon’s Fist characters are forgettable. They’re led by Damian’s cousin Mara. Despite being fairly forgettable herself, she has a strong origin story. She trained alongside Damian growing up, competing with him but never quite besting him. Damian was intended to lead the Demon’s Fist, but Mara took over in his absence. If you subscribe to the idea that all of Batman’s villains represent a distorted mirror image of him, then Mara would be the equivalent for Robin.

Jonboy Meyers was supposed to be the regular artist for Teen Titans. He made it through issue #1 before leaving due to “creative differences.” That’s a damn shame. Meyers breathed so much new life into this series, giving us an Anime-inspired expressiveness, and thus a sense of fun the book has sorely lacked for a long time. Make no mistake about it, the guy knows his way around a superhero action sequence. I’ll specifically cite the Kid Flash pages from the Rebirth issue as evidence.

Diogenes Nieves has the unenviable job of tagging in for Meyers in issue #2. To his credit, the transition goes about as smooth as you could ask. He gives us a couple of gorgeous pages of a rainy rooftop scene between Damian and Talia al Ghul. Still, the little quirks in Meyers’ art are still sorely missed. The same, sadly, can be said for when Khoi Pham takes over on issues #3-5. Objectively, he’s a fine artist. When it’s time for our team to rise up in issue #5, Pham nails it. It’s just that Meyers has that certain flair. Starting with it and then taking it away doesn’t do the book any favors.

Thankfully, one constant in the book is colorist Jim Charalampidis, who brings a valuable consistency to the series despite the changing artists. These pages look a touch darker than I might have expected. But it’s still the beautiful blaze of color you’d hope to see from a superhero team book like this.

It’s been quite awhile since I picked up Teen Titans on a consistent basis. This new series changed that. Did Damian Knows Best make Teen Titans great again? No. But it made the series good again. That’s more than you can say for any other book to bear it’s name in the last several years. Now, here’s hoping things stay good for quite some time. These characters, and this series deserve at least that much.

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A Champions: Change the World Review – Social Justice League

TITLE: Champions, Vol. 1: Change the World
AUTHOR: Mark Waid
PENCILLER: Humberto Ramos
COLLECTS: Champions #1-5
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $15.99
RELEASE DATE: May 3, 2017

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Champions simultaneously is and is not a product of it’s time. Stories about the new generation rising up and righting the wrongs of the world have been around as long as storytelling itself. And of course, it’s a teenage superhero book. Not exactly a new concept.

At the same time, Mark Waid is going out of his way to be contemporary with Champions. You’ve got some standard teenage superhero stuff, sure. But the book also tackles Islamaphobia, Islamic Fundamentalism, feminism, and police brutality. This is very much a book for 21st century issues, as seen from one side of the political aisle.

In the aftermath of Civil War II, Ms. Marvel (Kamala Kham), Nova (Sam Alexander), and Spider-Man (Miles Morales) have left the Avengers. Determined to give the world heroes they can believe in again, they form a team of their own. A team that refuses to punch down or use unjust force, but instead win the day with wisdom and hope. With the addition of Hulk (Amadeus Cho), Viv Vision, and Cyclops, the Champions are born.

I feel like I owe Humberto Ramos an apology. HIs style is so exaggerated, cartoony even, that one can fall into the trap of underestimating just how good he is. I’ll admit it: That happened to me. But what makes Ramos so special is his versatility. Champions is a potpourri of what superhero comics can offer. It’s a teen dramedy. It’s a superhero action thriller. It’s a look at what it means to be a hero. It’s an inspiring look at what happens when seemingly ordinary people stand up for themselves. But Ramos’ work fits all of it, and ties everything together seamlessly. Visually, nothing feels awkward or out of place. I can only imagine the talent it takes to pull that off.

Mind you, there are some minor bumps in the road. Issue #2 give us a pretty pitiful case of panel duplication. There’s also a splash page where Hulk and Viv are making out that I still don’t get. Hulk is so much bigger than her. I just don’t get how their mouths would…match up? Nothing too intense. But it does briefly pluck you out of the story.

Both Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos have been outspoken regarding the Trump administration, and some of the moves they’ve made. Waid, along with other creators, has made efforts to create “safe spaces” at comic book conventions, and has generally been very public about his feelings toward bullies, hate-mongerers, etc. Ramos, on the other hand, has simply opted not to appear in states that voted for Trump.

Champions, issues #3 and #5 in particular, doesn’t hide that it’s a book written by people with those beliefs. The upside to that is we get some powerful material about standing up to hate, and not being afraid to put yourself at risk to do what’s right. The downside is that this isn’t what a lot of people want in their comics. Though I doubt Waid, Ramos, and the Champions team care who they piss off.

In this sense, the book can overplay it’s hand at times. Especially in issue #3, when we get to the Amal character. She’s a fierce young woman standing up against a militant extremist group committing gender apartheid. It’s pretty obvious how the reader is supposed to feel about her. But Waid makes a point of slipping in little lines about how she should be the leader of the Champions, and how she’s a bad ass. He’s coming from a good place, but that’s overkill.

Gwenpool pops up in issue #5 to join the team’s efforts against a crooked and racist sheriff turning a blind eye to hate crimes. Enraged when a mosque is set ablaze, Gwen and the Champions are tempted to respond with violence. They instead opt to take a more difficult, non-violent route. This has a little bit of a PSA feel to it, but it’s a good message, and an effective use of the Gwenpool character.

Champions has become arguably the most provocative and inviting book Marvel has on the stands right now. It’s not for everyone. But it doesn’t necessarily try to be. It’s also a tremendous example of how the superhero genre can be used for more than just popcorn fun. Change the World has that. But it’s clearly about much more.

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A Champions #3 Review – The Heroes We Need Right Now

Champions #3, 2016, Humberto Ramos coverTITLE: Champions #3
AUTHOR: Mark Waid
PENCILLER: Humberto Ramos
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: December 7, 2016

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

If you’re only picking up one Marvel book these days, make it Champions. It’s fun, diverse without trying too hard to be, and particularly poignant these days. This issue’s subject matter might make some readers uncomfortable. But I suspect that’s the idea. It’s a book about young people coming together to take on problems that are at least partially based in reality.

Champions #3 takes on Islamic fundamentalism. It brings our team to the middle east to face a militant group committing gender apartheid. In the issue’s own words: “They believe  women are to be shamed. TO be hidden away, given no access to medical care or education. To be stripped of their human rights. … Young girls have been murdered in the streets for the ‘crime’ of carrying a schoolbook or being seen without a burqa.” Our heroes stand up for the defenseless, all the while trying to figure out who their team leader is.

When you consider how reality-based a lot of this stuff is, it becomes pretty powerful, and rightfully uncomfortable. We open the book with a splash page of a textbook on the ground, splattered with blood (shown right). There are no captions or dialogue on the page, as none are necessary. We later get images of women gathered together, talking about not giving into extremism, standing up for themselves, being killed for reading books. We’ve also got groups of men carrying guns, saying things like “We are divine messengers! You will not make fools of us in the eyes of our lord!”

champions-3-opening-pageSome people don’t like this kind of thing in their superhero escapism. Case in point, Chelsea Cain getting harassed by Twitter trolls over her work on Mockingbird. But there’s also something to be said for what these characters stand for. Not just the Champions, but superheroes in general. Things like truth, justice, defending the defenseless, etc. So using superheroes to illuminate real world issues doesn’t usually bother me, so long as it’s done well. You can argue this issue lays it on thick at times (judge the how and where for yourself). But its heart is definitely in the right place. It gets you thinking. Ergo, it accomplishes its goal.

Waid also weaves in a little teen drama, following up on the Hulk/Viv kiss from last issue. It’s not much, as we get into the main story pretty quickly. But it’s something they can circle back to later. I’m still not sure how the physics of that kiss were supposed to work…

There’s also a question of who the team leader is supposed to be. For my money, the obvious choice is Ms. Marvel. But the issue also floats Hulk and (perhaps in jest) Cyclops as candidates. I’m hoping the conclusion we come to here is that the Champions don’t need a leader. But you never know.

Humberto Ramos continues to surprise with this series. His exaggerated, cartoony style doesn’t seem like a good fit for our super-serious main story. But in a way, he may be the key to why this issue works so well. Obviously, this is some heavy subject matter about things that happen to real people in the real world. But Ramos’ cartoony, exaggerated figures allow us to still see it through the lens of a superhero comic. This doesn’t feel like a contrived PSA comic, but rather something that actually occurs organically in the Marvel Universe we know. Perhaps more importantly, if you jump completely out of the fantasy realm with a story like this, you risk losing your audience by slapping them too hard with this brutal reality. Ramos’ art is a nice compromise.

champions-3-humberto-ramos-dialogue-sceneWhat’s more, Ramos hits the right notes to make us feel what the story needs us to feel. We’re frightened, sympathetic, and angry for these women who’ve been victimized for no good reason. The gravity of the situation is conveyed effectively, and we’re hopeful for them in the end. Of course, the superhero action stuff is done very well, and Ramos is always good at interactions between the teens. There are some awkward character placements and panel transitions early on during a scene on Hulk’s big stealthy jet thing. But that’s a con far outweighed by all the pros.

Champions feels like the comic we need right now, for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is because these feel like the heroes we need right now.

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A Civil War II #6 Review – Following the Moral Compass

Civil War II #6, 2016, cover, Marko DjurdjevicTITLE: Civil War II #6
AUTHOR: Brian Michael Bendis
PENCILLER: David Marquez. Cover by Marko Djurdjevic.
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $4.99
RELEASED: October 26, 2016

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

An irony occurred to me after reading Civil War II #6. All this in-story drama and controversy among the superheroes is occurring because a teenager named Ulysses can supposedly see visions of the future. The actions taken by the heroes as a result of these visions have brought about the deaths of James Rhodes and Bruce Banner, the ruining of Clint Barton’s public life, and a lot of bad blood among our characters.

But now it’s all come to a head thanks to a vision of Miles Morales, Spider-Man, another teenager. As if we needed further confirmation that this story is really about the violence we see on the news every day, particularly involving young people.

After last issue’s startling vision of Spider-Man moments after murdering Steve Rogers, the battle between the heroes has come to a stand still. Our characters reel from what they’ve just seen and ponder their next move.

This issue brings us some of the best work David Marquez and have done together. Naturally, much of it involves Miles. The genuinely unsettling two-page spread of Spidey and a dead Captain America is simply re-printed from last issue. I’d normally call that shamefully cheap. But it works to preserve the emotional intensity of the moment.

Civil War II #6, 2016, David Marquez, Miles Morales visionThe page at right is the best in the issue. It shows us Miles’ emotional state after seeing what he did, and is a classic example of showing instead of telling. I love that they took us inside the vision for one panel, and the red smears in the page gutters are a nice touch. Though that actually looks more like paint than blood. I think I had walls that color once…

Marko Djurdjevic’s cover also adds a new dimension to the idea of Miles murdering Captain America. With his own shield? Really? C’mon man.

The reaction that Steve Rogers has to this is important. It’s as big a character moment for him as anybody else. Not surprisingly Bendis gets it right, positioning Rogers as the compassionate moral compass. He then accents it by having Black Panther switch sides, saying that “if you are on Captain America’s side…you can rest easy knowing you are on the right side.”

This, of course, casts poor Carol Danvers as the bad guy. Her protege Ms. Marvel even   stands against her in this issue (Though she’d already done that in the Ms. Marvel ongoing.). Carol has more or less been in the bad guy position the entire time, making her decisions based on events that could happen, rather than what has happened. Perhaps recognizing this, Bendis takes time in this issue to remind us she’s still trying to do the right thing, and doesn’t want to hurt Miles. We see her guilt, and she gets a nice moment of reassurance from Peter Quill. But the violence that’s resulted from all of this is causing her case to fall apart. Kitty Pryde’s expression in the image below says it all.

We get what I imagine was meant to be a bit of foreshadowing for Champions, as Ms. Marvel, Nova, and young Cyclops rally to protect Miles. The delays that have plagued Civil War II obviously tarnish that. But this scene was my first exposure to Riri Williams, who will be taking on the Iron Man role soon. I imagine that’s the case for quite a few readers. So perhaps the upside is worth it.

civil-war-ii-i-am-grootCivil War II showed up late, in more ways than one. This story just found its second gear last issue, and it finally feels it has the stakes an event comic should have. Hopefully those stakes continue to rise. Toward the end of the issue there’s a spooky page with Ulysses. A descent into evil may be forthcoming.

The question is, does he drag Carol Danvers down with him?

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A Champions #1 Review – Young Justice

Champions #1, 2016, Humberto RamosTITLE: Champions #1
AUTHOR: Mark Waid
PENCILLER: Humberto Ramos
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $4.99
RELEASED: October 5, 2016

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Miles Morales, Kamala Khan, and Sam Alexander all made their debuts in different books by different creators. But when they’re put together, they somehow become one of the most compelling teams in modern superhero comics. They see the Marvel Universe through younger eyes, and creators have mined a lot of fun and intrigue from that. Their ethnic diversity doesn’t hurt either.

The next logical step for this trio occurs in Champions #1, as Mark Waid gives them their own team, fueled by much of the same youthful idealism and teen angst that made them such a breath of fresh air to begin with. In the wake of Civil War II, Miles, Kamala, and Sam have broken away from the Avengers. In short order, they opt to form their own team, with the addition of Hulk (Amadeus Cho), and Viv Vision. Young Cyclops of All New X-Men, who we see on the cover, presumably joins the team next issue.

Two weeks ago I referred to the image of Miles Morales clutching Captain America’s dead body in Civil War II #5 as a “black lives matter” moment. In essence, it’s Marvel looking at real events through its own flamboyant and colorful lens. We get a bit of that here, though it’s less poignant, and more direct.

Near the end of the issue, Ms. Marvel winds up in front of a camera, and we get the following panel. Note that not only are there cops behind her, but so is Miles Morales

Champions #1, 2016, Humberto Ramos, Ms. Marvel

She later finishes the monologue with: “Help us win the hard way–the right way–not with hate, not with retribution, but with wisdom and hope. Help us become champions.”

Obviously, this is a thinly veiled speech about modern police affairs. But one can potentially read some other things in there, i.e. politics, the American wealth gap, etc. It all depends on your perspective. Either way, that thread of reality makes it that much easier to connect with Champions. 

Impossible as it seems, this is the first collaboration between Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos since Impulse in 1995. Ramos has always been an interesting study. His style is incredibly exaggerated and cartoony, with an energy to match. But when its time for him to get serious, he’s more than up to snuff. Case in point, things get more than a little grim when our heroes find a human trafficker. One that’s dressed like a clown, no less. The scene that follows has all the appropriate wait, and transitions perfectly into Kamala’s big moment. I wouldn’t put Ramos on a Punisher book. But his versatility is delightful.

 Champions has piqued my interest with a tremendous set-up, likable young characters, and a creative team that’s more than capable. Obviously we’re only one issue in. But the smart bet is this will be a quality book for the foreseeable future.

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