A superhero created by the government to fight the Axis powers in World War II, Captain America has always been a character with a strong political foundation, and writer Nick Spencer gets back to the hero’s roots with Captain America: Sam Wilson (Marvel), a book that has courted controversy by having the character take a firm stance on major partisan issues. Fox News attacked the series’ first issue for targeting conservatives by casting the villainous Sons Of The Serpent as a group trying to stop Mexican immigrants from crossing the U.S. border by any means necessary, and while Fox & Friends hasn’t yet responded to the second issue having Captain America side with an Edward Snowden-esque whistle-blower, they probably won’t enjoy that very much either.
Living as a black man in America has given Sam Wilson a very different perspective as Captain America than his white predecessor Steve Rogers, and he’s far more interested in responding to the concerns of the common man rather than serving as a government lackey. While he still occasionally helps out S.H.I.E.L.D., Sam is a free agent, using a newly opened hotline to find out about problems that fly under the government’s radar (or are on the radar, but being ignored), and he allows his political views to sway his judgment regarding which missions to take on. He has a definite liberal perspective, as does Spencer, and while some may take issue with a politically biased Captain America, Sam’s political point of view gives his character more definition.
This new series has a much more captivating angle than Sam’s previous ongoing as Captain America, which was a standard superhero tale pitting Sam against Steve’s rogues’ gallery, and emphasizing Sam’s political beliefs has helped Spencer take him out of Steve’s shadow. Spencer packs the first two issues with loads of story as he breaks down the months’ worth of events that led to Sam’s current situation, and while they’re a dense read, the pacing never drags. It helps that Spencer is working with artist Daniel Acuña, who is equally skilled with high-flying action and smaller character moments, bringing kinetic energy to the former and nuanced emotion to the latter.
Acuña’s textured coloring brings out the detail in his inks, and his art walks a fine line between the realism of modern superhero artists and the more expressive style of classic Marvel creators. (Acuña’s first cover is an homage to Frank Miller’s cover for Marvel Premiere #49, featuring Sam’s first full-length adventure as the Falcon.) The one big problem with the art is the costume design for Sam’s partner Misty Knight, whose body armor covers everything but her cleavage and her midriff, which is not only incredibly impractical, but looks very strange on the page. With so many positive changes being made to superheroine costume design in the last few years, Misty’s look is slides back to a more exploitative approach, an especially unfortunate development considering the title’s otherwise progressive stance. [Oliver Sava]
E.K. Weaver’s webcomic The Less Than Epic Adventures Of TJ And Amal (Iron Circus) ran a Kickstarter this year to raise funds for a printed omnibus as well as a short epilogue comic, long requested by the comic’s ardent fans. It isn’t really a love story but a story about love, devoid of anything saccharine that readers might expect from something labelled a romance comic. The plot unfolds quickly, as Amal comes out to his family and meets TJ, who’s looking for a ride from California to the East Coast. Fortunately, Amal wants to drive to Rhode Island for his little sister’s graduation, a stroke of luck so big it might sink a less well-written book. The moment is just a little too drunk and maudlin to be a meet-cute, and is the only part of the entire story that feels a little unrealistic. The first day in the car is as stilted and awkward as it should be, Amal recovering from a hangover and TJ’s amiable personality not quite enough to bridge the gap between them. As with any long road trip though, intimacy grows quickly and takes root as the men admit things they might not, if they weren’t crammed into a small car for long hours together.
TJ And Amal flourishes as a comic, the art just as key to the story as the characters. Weaver has been drawing these two for years, and she clearly put a lot of thought into their design. Tight shots of the car’s interior are laced with song lyrics and bookmarked with visual cues as to the guys’ location. The double page spreads and panels where she takes the time to lay out the sheer size of the vistas they’re driving through are great punctuation to the rest of the story. Weaver also has good comedic timing and a knack for expressions, particularly when paired with TJ’s one-liners. As you’d expect from the kind of comic where a character says “nutsmugglers” with a straight face, TJ And Amal is not entirely safe for work. There are explicit sex scenes between two men, and it’s some of the most honest sex ever portrayed in a comic. There are awkward moments and sweet ones, and consent and condoms are discussed in a way that feels very real, something this book has in common with the Smut Peddler comics that Weaver has contributed to and Iron Circus also published.
The story wallows in welcome ambiguity at every turn, where less confident creators might rely on tropes to shore themselves up. Road trips are often used to show character progression from “broken” to “fixed,” and given where Amal starts it could have easily gone that direction. But TJ And Amal is not an answer to a question, it’s a travelogue in both the literal and emotional sense. Neither of the characters are perfect, neither of them are unsympathetic. Weaver allows them the space to learn something about themselves and what they want instead of shoehorning them into an ending that ties everything up into a neat package. Even with the accompanying epilogue—which, like a few other limited-edition side stories, is not available with the rest of the online version of the comic—the reader is not given any answers at all, let alone easy ones. That trust in the reader and her characters sets Weaver apart, making it difficult to wait for her next project. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Body image is a complicated thing, and the discourse is lopsided. The most common discussions are of the narrow beauty standards perpetuated by mass media, and these usually come with calls for more inclusion of “plus-size” (both a misnomer and a shockingly large category) women. These calls, however, are commonly criticized for their lack of nuance and erasure of more petite women and women who might suffer from overactive metabolisms. It is, without a doubt, a heavy topic, one that requires more unpacking then it typically gets. That Kat Verhoeven, whose Toronto-set slice-of-life soap opera Meat & Bone (webcomic) uses the issue as its dramatic crux, can broach it so successfully is impressive.
Verhoeven’s characters aren’t happy with their bodies, but not all of them want to be thinner. Some of them want to be more muscular, some of them want to be healthier. Their dialogue, and the fecund interiority that Verhoeven lends them with extended dream sequences and a vast range of acting, turns them into vehicles of exploration. Their self-image is laid bare, and Verhoeven allows her readers to understand why they feel what they fell. As Verhoeven, who began the serial over a year ago, hones her aesthetic and sharpens her line, she becomes more adept at rendering the subtleties and nuances of her characters, which helps sell this. But, most importantly, she also offers other perspectives, universalizing the struggle for self-acceptance. She fills Meat & Bone with multiple women who offer unique struggles and perspectives, and at least one man suffers from (what an armchair psychiatrist would diagnosis as) mild body dysmorphia, which is interesting as the body image discourse is commonly a gendered one. She’s also careful never to be proscriptive, and she does emphasize the unhealthy behaviors that unchecked self-image problems can lead to. One character, Marshall, is actually happy with her body. She is anorexic, though, and while other characters avowedly want to emulate her regiment because they envy her body, Verhoeven draws her as bone-thin and emaciated. The bones of her body of are overemphasized and she’s given a sickly, disturbing physique. Her apartment is disheveled and she’s always sick. It is clear, at least to Meat & Bone’s readers, that she is not as enviable as other characters would have you believe.
Moral polemic, however, does not confer artistic merit—regardless of well-founded intention. Fortunately, Verhoeven strips her comic of pedagogy and Meat & Bone is more exploratory than it is instructive. At no point does the comic feel like it’s trying to tell you something; it’s more interested in showing you things. At no point is Verhoeven too busy or too dialed-in to lushly illustrate a dream sequence where Barbarella-era Jane Fonda (dressed in one of that titular icon’s spacefaring costumes) confers insight and wisdom to one of the series’ main characters. [Shea Hennum]
As the kids might say, Marvel remains determined to make the Inhumans “a thing.” Marvel has been doing this for two years now, which translates to multiple lifetimes in the publishing world. Spinning out of Jonathan Hickman’s Infinity crossover (which was itself merely another chapter in the long build-up to Secret Wars), the premise of Inhumanity was that new Inhumans began appearing all around the world at just the moment a splintered Royal Family was least prepared to deal with the consequences. To say that Inhumanity floundered would be putting it mildly: Marvel put a lot of eggs in this basket, and few hatched. The one spin-off that actually worked was Ms. Marvel, whose significance to the ongoing Inhumans saga was, at best, tertiary.
Marvel isn’t about to give up yet. One of the reasons why Inhumanity faltered out of the gate was the delay caused by the last-minute replacement of writer Matt Fraction on the initiative’s flagship Inhuman. Into his shoes stepped Charles Soule, the best pinch hitter in comics. Soule specializes in cleaning up other peoples’ messes (See also: The Death Of Wolverine, Superman/Wonder Woman). He ran with Inhuman in Fraction’s wake and, to his credit, did the best he could. Even though no one bought it, Marvel was still impressed enough to keep Soule on for the book’s (not quite) post-Secret Wars relaunch as Uncanny Inhumans.
Along for the ride is Steve McNiven. You might just remember McNiven from a little book called Civil War. He also worked with Soule on The Death Of Wolverine. He’s still one of the biggest names the company has, and as one might expect, Uncanny Inhumans is a very pretty book. McNiven is still paring off details from his formerly detail-obsessed work, and the results are more dynamic and immediately appealing, less illustrative and fussy.
But the problems with trying to sell the Inhumans as a franchise haven’t disappeared. The concept may trace its origin back to peak-era Lee and Kirby, but it was never intended to stand on its own. Put in the foreground of their own stories, there’s only so much even the best creators can do to build interest in the perverse family politics of a slave-holding hereditary monarchy. (Not that they mention the slave race who used to live in the basement of Attilan much anymore.) The basic premise of Inhumanity is still in effect: random people across the planet are becoming Inhumans, and the Royals have to fly around the planet telling folks whose lives have been irrevocably changed that they suddenly owe obeisance to a weird half-alien monarchy. Along for the ride now are Johnny Storm and the Beast, as well as the new wrinkle that Terrigen mist is fatal to mutants. This has the benefit of manufacturing drama by putting mutants in the unflattering position of being intolerant toward another minority population, as well as setting the X-books on another depressing status quo that will probably linger long past its welcome.
Soule and McNiven are a dynamite creative team, and inasmuch as there is interest to be mined from this premise, they put in overtime to extract it. Tellingly, the best part of the book are the sequences that focus on another plot entirely—Black Bolt’s battle against Kang over his son, stemming from an injudicious deal made on the eve of Secret Wars. But that just draws attention to the fact that Uncanny Inhumans is strongest the farther it flies from its premise. [Tim O’Neil]