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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A Black Widow #3 Review – We Don’t Need Words

Black Widow #3 (2016)TITLE: Black Widow #3
AUTHOR: Mark Waid, Chris Samnee.
PENCILLER: Chris Samnee
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: May 4, 2016

***Need to catch up? Go back to issue #1!

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

What has really stood out about Maid Waid and Chris Samnee’s work on Black Widow thus far is how little they’ve needed to use dialogue. The other day I had praise for The Punisher #1 for this same trait. But Waid, Samnee, and their crew have made it a continuing trend. Thus far, it has effectively set this series apart.

Natasha Romanoff is being blackmailed by a man calling himself “Weeping Lion,” who is in possession of her “darkest secret.” Needless to say, she doesn’t want it getting into the public eye. Thus, Natasha has been doing his bidding, including stealing from a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, which we saw in issue #1. In this issue Black Widow returns to what remains of the Red Room, the Russian facility in which she was trained as an assassin. But S.H.I.E.L.D. is by no means done with Natasha, and she must continue to stay one step ahead of them.

Black Widow #3, 2016, page 5, Chris SamneeChris Samnee excels at conveying Natasha’s intensity strictly through his art. As present-day Natasha doesn’t say much in this issue, that’s pretty much a necessity. When she does something as simple as shifting her gaze in a different direction with a slight furrow of her brow, it’s a moment to note. She’s not big, loud, or talkative. But she’s still an Avenger, and a lethal weapon. So when she’s in a potential combat situation, there’s weight and importance to virtually every move she makes. That’s a hell of a dynamic for a main character to have.

Last issue we met Agent Elder, whose protege was killed during the events of issue #1. He’s got a damn good reason to be angry with Black Widow, though it doesn’t seem like he’s much of a threat to her. In the opening sequence she foils his pursuit of her with a simple trip wire. Perhaps that’ll make it all the more interesting down the road if he somehow ends up catching her.

Much of this issue consists of flashbacks to Natasha’s childhood as she walks through her former home. We see how it has deteriorated over time, and what few relics of the past remain. We get a sense of how Natasha was taught. There were strict rules, obviously. But there were also instances of care and compassion when necessary. Samnee, and colorist Matthew Wilson tint these scenes under a pinkish hue, which creates an interesting vibe. I would suggest it’s almost one of innocence. Obviously red implies a certain intensity, and of course Widow’s hair is red. And it is the Red Room after all. The implication seems to be that things are violent, but not nearly as violent as they will be.

Black Widow #3, 2016, Chris Samnee, poseThus far, Black Widow has been a visually commanding and intriguing series that might just give us new insight into one of Marvel’s longest-running female heroes. At the very least, we’ll get to see her kick a lot of ass. It’s tough to complain about that.

Images from readcomiconline.com.

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A Black Widow #1 Review – The Thrill of the Chase

Black Widow #1, 2016, Chris SamneeTITLE: Black Widow #1
AUTHOR: Mark Waid
PENCILLER: Chris Samnee
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: March 2, 2016

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Now here’s your case for a larger role for Black Widow in mainstream media, right here. This is about as balls-to-the-wall as it gets.

Natasha Romanoff is a woman of few words in this issue, as she’s somehow become an enemy of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a chase that takes our heroine from the dizzying heights of a Helicarrier to the lows of a fist fight on the side of the road. While it’s not clear what exactly she’s done to be exiled (she’s apparently taken something from them), one thing’s for certain: Natasha Romanoff won’t surrender without one hell of a fight.

Mark Waid and Chris Samnee rightfully gained a lot of acclaim for their Daredevil run. But Black Widow is not Daredevil, at least not in this first issue. The entire issue is one big chase scene, as Natasha flees from S.H.I.E.L.D. With only one line of dialogue, our heroine is a woman of few words, letting her actions do the talking. This issue makes a hell of a statement. This is Black Widow, an ass kicker as she was meant to be.

Black Widow #1, 2016, Chris Samnee, explosionAs the issue is relatively low on dialogue, it’s up to Chris Samnee and colorist Matthew Wilson to convey that statement. And damn, do they deliver. I’ve always been high on Samnee’s style, which is an interesting blend of Alex Toth and David Mazzuchelli, with a some Steve Rude thrown in. It works beautifully here. Black Widow looks as iconic as she’s ever looked, in my view. But then our team delivers on some really great moments, including Natasha leaping from an explosion inside the Helicarrier (shown left). I love the shading across her face, and that glint from the flames in her eyes. We then turn the page and get a two-page spread of the Helicarrier in the sky, with Natasha’s relatively tiny frame freefalling beside it.

But the very best is saved for last. After an issue filled with explosions, flying cars, and a nice little moment where BW feigns becoming a damsel in distress, we get to a fight between Natasha and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent at a muddy cliffside. With much of their tech stripped away from them, it’s simply Natasha and her opponent in the dirt, with a rock as her only weapon. It’s a fantastic sequence, including one page that goes rapid-fire with 14 panels. And it ends on a delightfully somber note.

Waid doesn’t give us much in terms of information, here. Not only is it unclear what Natasha has done, but we’re not given any exposition about who this character is. Granted, I would assume the majority of the readership for this book already know who she is. But typically, one would usually present at least a little exposition here. In this issue we get none. In this case, it doesn’t do the issue any harm. Given the story they told, it’s not like they had time to slow down for an info dump. Plus, considering the quality of this issue, I’d say it was worth it to delay any backstory we might need.

Black Widow is off to one hell of a start. Considering what Waid and Samnee have given us in the recent past, this series is definitely one to watch.

Images from author’s collection. 

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An All-New, All-Different Avengers #4 Review – Avengers on a Budget

All New, All Different Avengers #4 (2016)TITLE: All-New, All-Different Avengers #4
AUTHOR: Mark Waid
PENCILLER: Mahmud Asrar. Cover by Alex Ross.
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: January 27, 2016

***Need to jog your memory? Go back to the beginning with our review of All-New, All-Different Avengers #1.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

The last two issues of All-New, All-Different Avengers didn’t do much for me. Much of it had to do with the involvement of Warbringer, whom I’m unfamiliar with. But now that we’re getting into the team dynamic and the nitty gritty of how they work together, things are picking up.

Our ol’ pal Jarvis joins the team at their new headquarters at a condemned airfield formerly owned by Tony Stark. As Tony brings Jarvis up to speed, our younger heroes wonder why The Vision has been acting even more robotic than expected. But a sudden attack from Cyclone in Atlantic City brings the Avengers into battle. And the thrill of the action causes Thor to do something unexpected. Here’s a hint…it’s on the damn cover.

All New, All Different Avengers #4, QuintetWhile I haven’t been thrilled by All-New, All-Different Avengers thus far, I continue to love this team line-up. It’s a great mix of classic Avengers (Iron Man, Vision), legacy heroes (Captain America, Thor), and next-gen heroes (Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel, Nova). Waid gives them a fun chemistry, which is added to by this low-budget story he’s going with. It almost has a Justice League International vibe.

There’s not much point to skating around the kiss between Cap and Thor, as they’re advertising it up front. While I won’t go into the specifics of how it happens, it’s not nearly as epic as the cover leads you to believe. Unless this is just the start of some grand romance between the two, which definitely has some intrigue to it. It would certainly be new and different, which seems to be Marvel’s M.O. these days.

It’s interesting to see how The Vision is portrayed in this book, as it matches up with what’s happening in his title. He seems to be raising red flags with the younger characters, which could create some interesting conflict between the new and established heroes down the road.

Ms. Marvel, All-New, All-Different Avengers #4, Mahmud AsrarMs. Marvel gets put over really nicely in this issue. Being so young, her perspective may be a bit more simplistic than the others. So during the attack, she cries to Cyclone: “You’re killing people! Why? They didn’t do anything to you!” To which Cyclone simply replies: “I’m a hired gun…Body count isn’t my problem.” Then at her request, Spider-Man flings her right at him, allowing her to hit several big blows. It’s a great moment for her, and a sign that she won’t be overshadowed.

Is Mahmud Asrar as step down from Adam Kubert? I don’t think so. Obviously he’s done ancillary work on this series with the recap pages and back-up stories, so he’s a natural plug-in without Kubert there. They’re fairly evenly matched as far as I’m concerned. Though Asrar has a cleaner, less sketchy touch to his work.

As much as most of us love Mark Waid’s work, I’m inclined to say All-New, All-Different Avengers has underperformed thus far. I don’t have a story that I can really sink my teeth into yet. But the upside is it’s laid some nice groundwork in terms of the relationships between the characters. And that’s undoubtedly one of the most important ingredients in any team book. If you’re an optimist, this is a series that can easily get better very quickly.

Images from author’s collection.

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