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Champions #1 Struggles to Live up to its Potential

There’s a problem with a book like Champions, and with this debut issue of the latest run, there are actually a couple of problems, though the main issue is something Champions dealt with from the start. This is a book about a diverse team of teenage heroes, and as such, it needs to be written by someone in tune with that demographic. Jim Zub is a strong writer and has worked on some great books, but the Champions are designed as a team that’s changing up the superhero game in order to adapt to a new political and cultural landscape, and much like the series did with Mark Waid before, Zub's take feels like an interpretation of modern teenagers rather than how modern teenagers actually are.

This is more of an issue on a book like Champions than it is on most any other title. After all, most, if not all teenage superhero titles have been written by people, mostly men, who are a good decade out of their teens. Books like Teen Titans, Ultimate Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men and countless others have had seminal runs by writers just like Jim Zub, so why is it so different with Champions? Well, because all of those other books are about young heroes trying to emulate the older generation. If not literally in the case of Legacy characters, then spiritually in the type of story that’s being told with them. In the case of Silver and Bronze Age stories, them being teenagers was often irrelevant to the plot.

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With Champions, though, it’s vital to the DNA of the book. It’s even in the blurb on the title page: “When society became disillusioned with its heroes, the next generation made a vow to do better.” In almost every way, Champions is trying to do things differently than what’s come before, which is so perfectly in tune with the fact that these are all teenagers rallying against the previous generation at a point in their life where they believe that they really can make a difference in the world. This is further exemplified by the contrast made by writers in books like Avengers and Amazing Spider-Man, who are currently exploring storylines that can only be done with more experienced heroes. By all rights, Champions should be the flagship book for the new generation of both characters and readers, but instead, it’s just... fine.

Champions #1 lacks the kind of youthful energy in its script (and, unfortunately, its art) that would catapult this series to the top of the charts, despite all the pieces being there. If you’ve not been keeping up with the series, the Champions have gone global. Ms. Marvel now leads an expansive roster of brand new teen heroes across the world as they attempt to battle against real-world problems like climate change and human trafficking. There’s not a supervillain to be seen (apart from a genuinely effective final page), but the action is relentless and carries you through the issue. On the whole, it suffers a little in the same way that books with such a large cast always suffers - there’s only so much page space to devote to character development, after all - but overall the pacing is good and there’s a fine balance between characters and action.

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With three distinct teams tackling three problems, the tension is felt throughout the roster. They do what they do best, however, and the day is saved. Zub wisely spends the majority of the time focusing on the interactions between the characters rather than on their activities in the field. It’s more important to establish who they are and just tell us that they save the day, rather than sacrifice character development for action. There’s a full splash page that emphasizes this point, as Amadeus Cho, Ms. Marvel, Viv Vision and Spider-Man dive into a destroyed power plant in Dubai, and while we see four close-up panels of their faces as they push themselves to the limits, the specifics are kept deliberately vague. They save the day, and that’s literally all we need to know. Thanks to that, and a jarringly shocking final page that promises to add an unpredictable element moving forward, and it's clear that this is a book that’s putting the development of its characters in the foreground, and pushing their missions to the back. At least, that’s what happens in this issue.

The art by Steven Cummings throughout the issue is solid superhero action. There’s a dynamism to the panel structure that pays off well in earlier scenes of chaos and destruction, and the exaggerated forms help with arguments and tense conversational scenes in the back half of the book. It all feels a little safe though. Much like the script, there’s nothing being done here that lives up to the promise of the book’s premise. These are brand new teen heroes doing what they believe is changing up the game, and this still feels like something that’s been seen before.

Marvel is putting books out there that have the kind of youthful energy that Champions needs. Runaways, Ironheart, Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, West Coast Avengers, all feel younger and more relevant than Champions, and that doesn’t seem right. Champions should be at the forefront of this movement; literally and figuratively, this should be the future of the Marvel Universe, but instead, it’s just ok. Maybe that’s not fair, maybe that’s expecting too much, and maybe books like Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers spoiled us. But right now, it feels like Champions is a great concept that has yet to truly live up to its potential.

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