20pgs. each full color; $3.99 each
(W: Mark Waid; P: Humberto Ramos; I: Victor Olazaba; C: Edgar Delgado; L: Clayton Cowles)
Much digital ink has been spilled over the last few years over Marvel’s push for more diversity in its character library, with many readers cheerfully yelling “It’s about time!” as the House of Ideas finally debuted (and put their marketing muscle behind) new characters like Kamala Khan and Miles Morales while others jeered as the company switched the race or gender behind the mask of classic characters like Thor, Captain America, and Wolverine. Fans in the latter camp would probably find much to grouse about in the lineup of Champions, Marvel’s newest teen team, which features a number of young, new heroes who use familiar names: Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel; Amadeus Cho, the teen genius turned Hulk; Miles Morales, the formerly “Ultimate” Spider-Man; Sam Alexander, the brash new Nova; Viv Vision, the “daughter” of synthezoid hero the Vision; and Scott Summers, the time-displaced young Cyclops from the pages of All-New X-Men.
Formed in the aftermath of Civil War II, Champions follows a team of young heroes who grew disillusioned with the my-way-or-the-highway attitude of the Avengers and decided they had a better way to make the world a better place. As Ms. Marvel outlines in her first issue monologue/mission statement,
“We see it all around us more and more every day—people with power punching down. Taking lives when they don’t have to. Meeting unarmed perps, even unarmed kids, with lethal firepower. That’s the world we’re inheriting, where violence does all the talking. But we can be better than that. We have to start enforcing justice without unjust force.”
From there, the team sets out to put the “warrior” in Social Justice Warrior, battling religious militants who are preventing the education of girls, racist Southern sheriffs, human traffickers, and a team of corporate mercenaries called the Freelancers whose main goal in life is to take jobs that let them “punch down.” Along the way, they get dragged into Secret Empire, face off against classic Marvel villains like Psycho Man and the High Evolutionary, team up (slightly unwillingly) with the Avengers, and even find time for the occasional karaoke night and paintball game. It can’t be all serious all the time; they are still teenagers, after all.
Marvel once prided itself on its stories featuring “the world outside your window,” and Champions does that saying proud by being the first superhero comic to really speak to today’s politically active teenagers. While his liberal bona fides would never be questioned by anyone who has read his Twitter feed, fifty-six-year-old Mark Waid may still seem like an odd choice to speak to the kids, but he does a phenomenal job of weaving Millennial progressive politics believably into the story. The characters may go off on the occasional monologue, but it’s character-based and believable, not ham-fisted or tacked on. In pretty much every way, this is a story very much of this moment; these teens speak in modern slang without it seeming hokey or forced, social media is a central component in a realistic (rather than perfunctory) way, and the kids even deal with modern problems like establishing an online movement only to see it coopted out from under them by sinister forces. It’s also, y’know, a superhero comic, so there’s plenty of action, interpersonal drama, and killer cliffhangers to keep you coming back month after month.
Humberto Ramos has long been a go-to choice for teen-starring books, going back to his work on the teen Flash Impulse (featuring writing by, you guessed it, Mark Waid). Ramos can be a divisive figure in some circles, but this is exactly the kind of book that plays to his strengths. While he’s toned down some of the more extreme elements of his style (his characters are no longer 90% head and shoes), it’s still undeniably his, with exaggerated, expressive faces and (mostly) scrawny, rubbery physiques. His storytelling is a breeze to read, and his acting chops make the talky moments every bit as visually appealing as the action pieces. Victor Olazaba amplifies these strengths with his inks, using varying line weights and only the lightest bit of crosshatching to keep the characters looking loose and limber. Edgar Delgado uses a light touch on the computer colors, keeping the color choices mostly literal and using shading to make the characters look three-dimension without over-rendering them into plasticity. It’s a slick, modern superhero look that fits this slick, modern superhero book well. (And on a side note, in this age of double-shipping, short arcs, and rotating artists, it’s a pleasure to see a book keep its entire art team—even letterer Clayton Cowles!—intact for 18 issues. Would that all Big Two comics had this kind of consistency. The new creative team of Jim Zub and Steve Izaakse took over with the latest issue, #19, but that is outside of the scope of this review.)
One curious artistic choice the book makes, however, is wasted space: every issue opens with a wordless splash page, not to kick the story off but rather to make veiled reference to a plot point later on in the issue. Like most Marvel books, each issue of Champions runs a scant 20 pages of actual story and art at a $3.99 asking price, so giving one of those pages (5% of what you’ve got!) over to something that doesn’t really add to the story (seriously, one of them is just a drawing of a lamp) seems an odd choice; 17 issues in, that’s almost an entire issue’s worth of story we’ve missed out on. Which is a shame because, for all the things this series does right, it’s missing something major it could have used that space for: deeper character development. There are a lot of interesting bits of teambuilding and friendship building in this series, including an ingenious bit in the second issue where the Champions go on a camping trip to get to know each other better and start by teaching each other what their powers are, a great introduction or refresher for the reader that doesn’t feel like exposition in the slightest. But what’s missing is soap opera and side stories, things that develop the characters outside of the group dynamic. On one hand, it feels a bit superfluous to give these characters a solo spotlight in their team book when most of them have their own solo titles. But on the other hand, reading Champions by itself divorced from the solo titles, the characters can feel just a bit more like plot devices and a bit less like humans. Ironically, the nonhuman among the group gets the most development, with the last several issues of this particular run featuring a side story starring Viv Vision, exploring the strained relationship she has with her father and the fallout of (mild spoilers!) the High Evolutionary turning her into a real human. The addition of a more personal side story wonderfully rounded out the Champions reading experience, so hopefully that element is amplified even more as time goes on.
Minor quibbles aside, there’s a lot to love about Champions. Hopefully it’s finding its audience among the politically engaged youth of today, because it offers both a rallying cry and identifiable characters learning to stumble their way toward that scary thing called adulthood, captured with brisk plotting, sharp-yet-realistic dialogue, and appealingly cartoony art. The cover blurb on each issue says the Champions are here “Because the world still needs heroes!” With heroes like these, the next generation is certainly in good hands. | Jason Green