Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it is Exiles #4. Written by Saladin Ahmed (Black Bolt, Abbott) with art by Javier Rodriguez (Royals, Doctor Strange And The Sorcerers Supreme), inker Álvaro López (Royals, Doctor Strange And The Sorcerers Supreme) and colorist Chris O’Halloran (Generation Gone, Magnus), this issue highlights the value of different superhero interpretations by taking readers on a thrilling pirate adventure. This review reveals major plot points.
What is more important in superhero comics: innovation or consistency? Do readers want to see new takes on established IP, or do they want familiar stories that don’t shake things up? There are no concrete answers to these questions, and superhero publishers have been trying for years to satisfy both arguments. When it comes to monthly comic-book sales, the most commercially successful projects are the ones that don’t rock the boat too much, but fresh interpretations fare very well in collected editions that reach readers outside of comic shops. Marvel’s Exiles is an ongoing series that is all about finding different angles to approach a superhero universe, yet it still maintains connections to history as it sends a team of heroes across a variety of alternate realities to stop a villain from devouring entire timelines and dimensions.
Saladin Ahmed has quickly risen through the ranks of superhero writers thanks to his Eisner Award-nominated work on Marvel’s Black Bolt, and Exiles allows him to stretch his imagination with a concept that gives him freedom to do pretty much whatever he wants. Penciller Javier Rodriguez, inker Álvaro López, and colorist Chris O’Halloran have the talent to visually interpret anything Ahmed throws at them, making Exiles one of the most striking superhero titles on stands. Rodriguez and López have a history of creating inventive, dynamic, and expressive visuals together for books like Daredevil, Spider-Woman, Doctor Strange And The Sorcerers Supreme, and Royals. Exiles gives them the opportunity to stretch their artistic muscles like never before, aided by O’Halloran’s lush palettes and clean rendering.
Last month’s issue of Exiles introduced a hippie Namor in charge of an Atlantean commune before sending the team to an Earth where Peggy Carter became Captain America, a story that ended with the detonation of an atomic bomb. The Exiles survive thanks to the Tallus, a device that allows them to teleport through dimensions, which sends them to a new world at the start of this week’s Exiles #4. This setting has deep roots in Marvel history, with Ahmed pulling inspiration from Fantastic Four #5, the first appearance of Dr. Doom that also happens to feature a wacky time-traveling plot where The Thing becomes the notorious pirate Blackbeard. Ahmed’s story explores what would have happened if The Thing decided to stay in the past rather than return to the present, but this is a different Earth, allowing the creative team to imagine pirate versions of other Marvel characters like The Falcon, Misty Knight, and the Juggernaut, who appears as an unstoppable ship called the Juggernautical.
Members of the Exiles ensemble connect the series to various elements of Marvel Comics. This book wasn’t launched as part of the Legacy initiative, but it does feature some legacy elements. Team leader Blink led the original incarnation of the Exiles, but new aspects of her character are unpacked thanks to Ahmed’s focus on her West Indian background. The series features framing narration from the Unseen, who fulfills the role of the Watcher in the What If? series. Exiles is essentially a What If? book with a central team of heroes that appears in each new situation, and the Unseen is both a shout out to the past and an acknowledgement of how the Marvel Universe has changed over the years. The Watcher is dead and Nick Fury has taken over his position. Fans may not agree with the change, but Nick Fury is one of those rare superhero characters who was allowed to turn into someone new over time. Becoming the Earth’s new Watcher is a logical next step for a character that led a global peacekeeping organization, and Nick Fury’s background provides a human core for this cosmic role.
What If? was a staple of ’70s Marvel, and Exiles often reads like a superhero comic from that period, only with people who weren’t represented in comics of that time. A queer black Valkyrie. A middle-aged Muslim Pakistani-American woman. These characters didn’t get the spotlight in classic superhero books, but Exiles is focused on pushing things forward with characters who represent major strides for Marvel Comics. Iron Lad and Khan are both legacy heroes originally introduced in comics tailored to bring in new readers: Iron Lad first appeared in Young Avengers, which reinterpreted Marvel’s biggest heroes with teen heroes who had their own unique identities. Khan is the grizzled future version of Kamala Khan, the biggest new Marvel character of the past five years.
Valkyrie is a legacy hero making her debut in this series, but her primary connection is to Marvel movies rather than the comics. Exiles introduces a version of the Asgardian warrior based on Tessa Thompson’s performance in Thor: Ragnarok, bringing a swaggering, intimidating brawler to the page. She’s also openly queer, taking a movie plot point that was left on the cutting room floor and making it an explicit, celebrated aspect of her comic-book character.
Wolvie, the adorable cartoon Wolverine, has a connection to comics specifically geared to a young audience. He hails from 2009’s X-Babies miniseries, a gleeful, clever satire of kids’ entertainment that also serves as an appreciation of Marvel’s Star Comics line from the ’80s. (It also has a scene that features baby versions of every major X-character from the property’s full history up to the point, including teams like Generation X and X-Statix.) It’s an exceptional miniseries that not many people have read, and it demonstrates Ahmed’s knowledge of Marvel deep cuts. His work has a deep reverence for the past, with Black Bolt and the current Quicksilver: No Surrender series steeped in continuity that Ahmed mines for rich emotional material.
Previous writers haven’t spent much time exploring Blink’s heritage, but Ahmed sees the opportunities for character development by reinforcing her link to the Bahamas. In this week’s issue, the Exiles find themselves fighting alongside Blackbeard and his crew to free slaves being transported through the West Indies, triggering painful recollections for Blink as she thinks about how her own ancestors were abused and dehumanized by the slave trade. Valkyrie’s rage is also informed by her status as a black woman. She doesn’t have the same personal investment as Blink, but she sees herself reflected in the faces of these slaves, summoning rage that thrusts her into battle.
Rodriguez and López elevate any material given to them, with a range that allows them to seamlessly transition from intimate character moments to rollicking spectacle. López brings out the intricate detail of Rodriguez’s pencils, using different tools and rendering techniques to create distinct textures and add clarity. Rodriguez is constantly experimenting with layouts and composition, and the first page of Exiles #4 is a prime example of how he breaks down multiple story beats in a cohesive, unified full-page image. Chains swirl around The Unseen, creating loops that contain images of an atomic bomb, the classic Nick Fury in action, and an unconscious Blink, knocked out by the blast at the end of last issue. The full image projects sullen contemplation while providing the necessary narrative information, and using chains as panel borders accentuates The Unseen’s sense of confinement and inability to act on what he sees.
The highlight of Exiles #4 is an epic pirate battle that unfolds over a hectic two-page spread, forcing readers to slow down so they break down the sequence of events. The main movement on the page comes from the Juggernautical as he plows through battling pirates and soldiers, but there’s also Khan and Wolvie freeing slaves and Blink teleporting across the ship to steal the book that controls the rampaging supervillain. Overlaid panels guide the eye while zooming in on specific moments, and the spread brilliantly conveys the passage of time while emphasizing the chaos of this slave ship showdown. It requires some extra work to navigate the complex layout, but that makes for a more active, immersive reading experience. This spread is a breathtaking display of Rodriguez’s ingenuity and López’s meticulous inking, with O’Halloran’s coloring and Joe Caramagna’s lettering playing key roles in establishing the flow of the action.
Each issue of Exiles is full of surprises thanks to its dimension-hopping concept, giving the creative team the opportunity to play around with Marvel concepts in their own unique way. In the case of this week’s issue, the story builds on the past to deliver an exciting pirate tale that is emotionally enriched by the historical reality of the slave trade. This book is a lot of fun, but it also has something to say about the despicable treatment of human beings taken from their homelands in chains and forced into a life of servitude. By having the freedom to take these heroes to any place and time, these creators are able to draw attention to a historical wrong that should never be forgotten, cementing the valiant heroism of these characters in the process.