By: Dennis Hopeless (Writer), Kev Walker (Penciller), Jason Gorder (Inker), Jean-Francois Beaulieu (Color Artist), VC’s Joe Caramagna (Letterer)

The Story:
Out of the frying pan, into the hellfire, and in front of Zemo.

The Review:
The cover to this issue pairs very nicely with the last page of the comic, which is a bit unfortunate in that the cover’s colors are too muted to “read” very well, making what could be a provocative and tension-filled cover more of a muddled mess. It’s nice that the logo is a focal point, but the brightness of the logo and the running border at the bottom completely dominates everything else.

Inside, there’s more improvement to the art and colors from last issue, which owes a considerable amount to Walker/Gorder’s return. There are still a few problems of not being able recognizing key characters in some panels, which again is probably down to an unfortunate tendency to continue to dress characters in similar outfits (first formal wear/little black dresses, then prisoner uniforms) that don’t lend themselves to immediate recognition. But the art really shines with very emotive facial and body expressions.

Because let’s be clear, the tension and atmosphere of this book are clearly centered on characters. The comic starts immediately after last issue’s dramatic ending, but the characters’ confusion and arguments play out against the background of their (somewhat aimless) escape attempt. The big showdown of this comic is a conversation between the characters and Baron Zemo, with the cliffhanger demanding an answer born from the characters rather than being a mere plot point. And all of that is made more tragic as the readers hope for the best for these guys, but can only watch as they have to develop on their own, and at their own pace. As Hazmat says, “maybe I’m not totally fine, but I’m fine enough [for now…]”

The comic is paced nicely as we track this development. From the tension of the escape, to the relative breather of being captured by S.H.I.E.L.D., to the out-of-their-depths confrontation with Zemo and his offer to “join us.” These were unexpected twists to what we were expecting, but that only adds to the feeling that our heroes’ lives are anything but settled. In fact, and Hopeless doesn’t present this very overtly, but it’s clear our heroes actually have very little choice in the flow of events to their lives. Anachronism notes that it all “seem[s]… carefully planned,” and other hints in previous issues give the readers an ominous feeling that our heroes may not be able to escape this, the same impression of watching incoming cars headed to an unavoidable collision.

Despite Zemo’s pitch that he will help them “learn how to build the life [they] want, not the one that’s expected,” it’s clear that it’s trap, and there may not be any choice at all. These characters have continuously been forced into “expectations” from the very beginning, including Arcade’s expectations of them during the Arena series. It’s a resonant metaphor for growing up– will these young heroes have any true choice for the shape of their lives? Do any of us?

The Bottom Line:
Issue #4 proves that there is a grand story being told here, with each chapter providing a flow that seems to force our characters in an unavoidably tragic direction. The story beats are nearly perfect to balance the tension and the tender moments, helped by the expressive art and deliberate color choices. Everything is tinged with a very real sense that these characters are both trying to do the best they can while at the same time dealing with their very limited and high-stakes choices.

The Grade: A

-Danny Wall

Three More Tidbits:
— I think this is the first time Zemo’s been given an armband and banner with a stylized “Z,” but it’s chillingly effective.
— There’s no hint of an answer, but the more Hellstrom shows up, the more I wonder what his motivation is to be under Zemo’s leadership. I’m hoping that what we get here is set-up for future stories.
— Kind of weird to see Molly and Katrina visiting the S.H.I.E.L.D. prison. Doesn’t ring true to the “outsider” nature of the Runaways.