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 Champions #2 Review – Superhero Camping Trip!

Champions #2, 2016, Humberto RamosTITLE: Champions #2
AUTHOR: Mark Waid
PENCILLER: Humberto Ramos
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: November 2, 2016

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

By Rob Siebert
Editor Fanboy Wonder

A superhero camping trip. In Champions #2, Ms. Marvel gets the team together to bond with a superhero camping trip. Literally. With a campfire, weenie roast, and full costumes. It’s exactly the kind of gloriously hokey thing you’d expect a group of teenagers to do. It doesn’t make for an issue that’s big on thrills. But it’s a really internist way to play with the characters, and get basic information/exposition to the readers. It works!

Hear that Benjamin Percy? Get the Teen Titans a tent and some damn sleeping bags!

The most noteworthy aspect of this issue is the addition of young Cyclops of All New X-Men to the group. He crashes the trip, and we get some of the confrontational stuff you might expect when the younger version of a mutant controversy-magnet pops up at a gathering of hormonal teenage superheroes. Including a really funny moment with Hulk (shown below).

Champions #2, 2016, Humberto Ramos, Cyclops, HulkCyclops makes sense for this book, given the team’s aim to almost take the superhero concept back to its roots, and what’s happened to the older Cyclops in the past few years. At one point Hulk even has the line, “Isn’t this kind of like drafting teenage Hitler?”

Early in the issue, Ms. Marvel asks everyone to demonstrate their superpowers. This sequence fascinates me. It’s one of those things that’s so simple, you’d think every team book would have some version of it. Marvel and DC usually come into team books assuming readers know who everyone is. If that’s not the case, then the creative team opts to show us what everyone’s powers are, usually via a battle sequence. But Waid makes part of an issue out of it to lay everything out for new readers, and continue to develop the rapport between the characters. There’s a subtle brilliance to this for which I credit Waid immensely.

I had no idea how much I missed this Waid/Ramos team working on a teenage superhero book. They did it 20 years ago with Impulse, and now they’re back and better than ever in Champions. Ramos has a style that’s very cartoony, but also very expressive and conducive to explosive action. The Hulk/Cyclops bit is a good example, as is the cover shot with the big punch from Nova.

On the down side, panel duplication strikes again in this issue, as Ramos gives us the same image four times (shown below). I’m no artist, so perhaps I shouldn’t be the one to throw stones. But as a reader, this kind of thing always plucks me right out of the issue. Even a little change to one of the images would have helped, like lowering Spider-Man’s arm. It’s the only part of the issue I flat out dislike.

champions-2-panel-duplicationLet’s talk a little bit about the last page. (This is where the big spoilers are!!!) So you’ve got the surprise splash page of Hulk making out with Viv. In terms of teenage hormones running amok, I love it. But how does that shot work from, like, an engineering standpoint? Hulk is bigger than everyone else on this team, so his mouth is obviously bigger than Viv’s. So does she somehow dislodge her jaw to make out with him? These are the hard hitting questions you must answer, Mark Waid…

When I wrote about the last issue of The Vision, I mentioned having mixed feelings about Viv’s continued presence in other books despite Tom King no longer working for Marvel. I still feel that way. But if you’re going to give her to somebody else, there’s no one better than Mark Waid. Under Waid’s pen, Viv seems to be asking herself questions about her sexuality, as teenagers naturally do. Robot sexuality, huh? There’s a subject they don’t teach you in school…

it’s also interesting to me that Waid is writing both Champions and the not so all new or all different Avengers title. To an extant, he’s behind the Champions, and the establishment they’re broken away from. But considering that Spidey, Ms. Marvel, and Nova were a big part of what made All New, All Different Avengers so interesting, for my money Champions is now Marvel’s most compelling team book. At least for the time being. Not bad for only two issues.

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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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An All-New X-Men: Yesterday’s X-Men Review – I Grow Up to Be a Villain???

All-New X-Men, Vol. 1: Yesterday's X-MenTITLE: All-New X-Men, Vol. 1: Yesterday’s X-Men
AUTHOR: Brian Michael Bendis
PENCILLER: Stuart Immonen
COLLECTS: All-New X-Men #15
FORMAT: Hardcover
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $24.99
RELEASED: March 27, 2013

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Even with its flaws, thus far All-New X-Men manages to be one of the more compelling Marvel NOW! releases.

While at death’s door because of another next-gen mutation, Beast makes a drastic move. In an attempt to make Cyclops see just how far he’s fallen (see Avengers vs. X-Men), he travels into the past and brings the five original X-Men to the present day. Now these relatively young and naive incarnations of Beast, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman and Angel must face a future where Charles Xavier is dead, Cyclops is leading a “mutant revolution,” and humans all over the world are suddenly gaining mutant abilities.

All-New X-Men Vol. 1: Yesterday's X-MenYesterday’s X-Men is ambitious, to say the least. Here we have a book that’s trying to bring in new readers by kicking off a new chapter in the world of the X-Men, while at the same time bringing in time traveling counterparts from another era, while at the same time trying to adapt to a new status quo where Cyclops is essentially a bad guy, while at the SAME time trying to introduce new characters. We certainly can’t accuse Bendis of phoning it in, can we? What’s more, this entire debacle works for the most part. It hits a few snags, but All-New X-Men has been near the top of my weekly stack since issue #1.

First and foremost, Stuart Immonen puts on a heck of a show here. He draws a hell of a Beast, particularly in the opening pages where we see him crying out in pain, with his hand extending out beyond the panelling toward the reader. The panel in the lower lefthand corner of the first page is a favorite of mine, as the character’s eyes tell such a great story. Cyclops also looks wonderful. He’s got a great badassery about him, particularly in the moment when he crosses his forearms, using the “X” symbol as part of an act of war. Immonen also has the unenviable task of drawing both Cyclops and Iceman at different ages (Beast is something of an exception, as his younger self is still human-looking). Almost all of this is pulled off very nicely.

All-New X-Men, Vol. 1: Yesterday's X-Men, Beast, Stuart ImmonenBeast a new look here, though I can’t say I’m a huge fan. At this point my loyalties are with feline Beast as opposed to simian Beast. Granted, it’s too early to make too harsh a judgment. But one character I CAN judge harshly is Iceman. Presumably to differentiate present day Iceman from past Iceman, Immonen draws the modern day character with silly looking icicles all over his body. This all seems like a needless distraction to me.
Bendis likes to banter. The more of his stuff you’ve read, the more obvious that is. It’s just how his voice is. He’s witty. I usually don’t have a problem with it. Depending on who he’s writing, it often works to his advantage because it gives us the sense that the characters know each other well. It also lends itself perfectly to funnier characters like Spider-Man. The trouble here is that Storm, and more notably Emma Frost, two characters who air less on the jokey side, seem to act out of character at times. Most of it is subtle, i.e. the use of certain words or expressions. But it’s there. On the plus side, Beast does deliver a classic bit of Bendis humor to Jean Grey toward the end of the book. She asks him: “How did I die?” His honest, logical, scientific-minded response is: “Which time?”

All-New X-Men, Vol. 1 Yesterday's X-Men, Stuart Immonen, BeastOn the subject of our fuzzy friend, while Yesterday’s X-Men is essentially a book about Cyclops, one can make the argument that Beast steals the show here. In addition to seeing young Hank McCoy interact with and treat his present day counter part, readers will likely find themselves questioning the wisdom of his decision to tamper with the space time continuum. From a character logic standpoint, it’s something we can chalk up to desperate times and desperate measures at the end of the day. But the stakes are immensely high, and the number of things that could potentially go wrong are astronomical, which obviously makes for a more tense and intriguing story.

And then we come to the proverbial elephant in the room, Jean Grey. If we’re looking for a way to bring Jean back, this works as well as anything. The characters all react accordingly to the reappearance of their fallen friend. She doesn’t get a hard hitting one-on-one scene with either Cyclops or Wolverine in this book, but it’s bound to be coming. Here Comes Yesterday plants the seed for that, and for now that’s enough.

We also get a sub plot in this book about how Cyclops, Emma Frost and Magneto are suddenly having trouble with their powers as a result of their direct contact with the Phoenix (though Magneto wasn’t actually part of the “Phoenix Five”). This feels like filler to me, but I’m willing to see where it goes. At the very least, it gives us an interesting scene between Cyclops and Magneto in issue #4.

If All-New X-Men is set to be the new flagship book of the X-Men line, then things are looking good for the time being. We’ve got a compelling story, fantastic art, and some great fan service going on. The negatives are there. But the positives are strong enough to offset them for the time being.

RATING: 8/10

Image 1 from ign.com. Image 2 from shootingdirtylooks.wordpress.com. Image 3 from superheroscifi.wordpress.com.

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An Avengers vs. X-Men Review – Cyclops Did WHAT????

Avengers vs. X-Men coverTITLE: Avengers vs. X-Men

AUTHORS: Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Aaron, Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman, Matt Fraction
PENCILLERS: John Romita Jr., Olivier Coipel, Adam Kubert.
COLLECTS: Avengers vs. X-Men #0-12
PUBLISHER: Marvel
CUMULATIVE PRICE: $52.87
GRAPHIC NOVEL RELEASE: November 2012

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

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Avengers vs. X-Men was one of the more inviting event comics I’ve seen in several years. The title alone tells you a lot. You read it and you immediately know the premise, and that almost all of Marvel’s big name heroes will be front and center. Toss in the fact that it revolves around the Phoenix Force, one of the most recognizable pieces of Marvel’s mythology, and we’ve got ourselves yet another Avengers-themed money vacuum. I wish I had one of those…

When the Phoenix Force returns to Earth, the heroes fear it has come for Hope Summers, Cyclops’ granddaughter from the future (don’t ask). Fearing for the safety of the entire world, the Avengers, led by Captain America, try to peacefully take Hope into protective custody. But Cyclops, now the leader of his own team of X-Men, won’t allow it. After Scarlet Witch reduced the mutant population to roughly 200 in House of M, Cyclops sees Phoenix’s return as Hope’s chance to fulfill her destiny as the savior of mutantkind. His refusal to cooperate leads to a battle between the Avengers and the X-Men. Ultimately, this conflict among the heroes will place everyone in even greater jeopardy as the X-Men are granted a power greater than they can possibly imagine…

Avengers vs. X-Men #1, John Romita Jr., face offSo you’re going to put these two teams against one another, and not have mind control be a factor (at least not initially). The first thing you need to be worried about is making sure neither team looks like the bad guys. Avengers vs. X-Men accomplishes this by having both teams fight for control of the situation, rather than work together to solve it. Captain America shows up on Utopia, and essentially tells Cyclops they’re taking Hope into protective custody. Feeling threatened, and with the mindset that the Phoenix could help reignite the mutant race, Cyclops lashes out. Thus, the fight begins.

So what we have here is a situation that both sides came into looking for a fight. Captain America secretly brought the entire Avengers roster to Utopia as back up. On the other hand Cyclops, who’s kind of been acting like a dick lately, thinks that the Phoenix Force, a destroyer of worlds that once possessed and killed his wife Jean Grey, is only concerned about the welfare of the mutants. But Earth’s entire population will ultimately be endangered here. Throw in the way Captain America cheap shots Wolverine in issue #3 for no real reason, and for the first half of the story both teams are essentially having a dick measuring contest with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. That doesn’t exactly reflect well on anyone, does it? But we have to have a fight, right? Otherwise we can’t sell comics…

Just before the halfway point, Marvel does play the mind control card by having the Phoenix possess Cyclops, Emma Frost, Namor the Submariner, Colossus and Magik. The “Phoenix Five” then begin to remake the world as they see fit, telling world leaders that the time for peace has come…whether they like it or not. This turn of events is about Cyclops more than the other four. Avengers vs. X-Men marks the culmination of the slow fall from grace we’ve seen him go through in recent years, the apex of it all being what happens with Charles Xavier.

Avengers vs. X-Men, Phoenix FiveReaders are always looking for long term consequences from their event comics. In terms of AvX, they need look no further than Cyclops, who truly becomes a tragic figure in this book. Like so many other characters in mythology and popular culture, he was only trying to do the right thing. But he went to such terrible lengths to do so that he literally became the kind of force he originally set out to stop. In the end, not only did he murder his surrogate father, but he lost everything. He lost the family, his friends, his camaraderie with his peers, even his freedom. while these five characters are being influenced by the Phoenix, their choices are still their own. All of this was his doing. He did it. Him. And now he has to live with that for the rest of his life. Pretty heavy stuff, huh? In terms of long term effects, the added depth and dimension this story brought to the Cyclops character will likely be its enduring legacy outside of being an event comic where a bunch of heroes fought each other. And let’s be honest, Charles Xavier will be back eventually.

In terms of structure, things grew a little stagnant during the second half of the story, as we knew we were simply waiting for the Avengers to take the Phoenix Five down one by one. They give Spider-Man the spotlight for an issue, as we see him persevere while Colossus and Magik beat him within an inch of his life. That provides a nice character moment for him to break up a bit of the staleness. But it’s an unavoidable valley in the story. The writers do what they can with it, and very capably I might add. But it is what it is.

Avengers vs. X-Men, Spider-Man, Colossus, MagikJohn Romita Jr. does some fine work here, despite some awkward depictions of Cyclops early in the story. Olivier Coipel and Adam Kubert are also very strong. One person I took special note of in issue #11 was Laura Martin, whose reds, oranges and yellows made for a great sunset metaphor during the Cyclops/Xavier confrontation.

Avengers vs. X-Men was an easy pitch for readers new and old, it had some of the best talent in the industry attached to it, and it did some great fan service. Could we have asked more from it? I suppose there’s always someplace you can ask for more. But I can honestly say that the main story was worth the money I spent on it. And at the end of the day, can we really ask for much more than that?

RATING: 8/10

Image 1 from heroes4hire.com. Image 2 from gamespot.com. Image 3 from ign.com. 

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