Checkmate #17

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Or – “It’s Interesting To See Ol’ Moosie Again…”

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Some years ago, when Mark Gruenwald was writing Quasar for Marvel, you could count on that series to clean up Marvel’s loose ends, either writing in endings for characters who disappeared, or in some cases explaining why one-shot villains were never seen again. Sometimes this led to interesting storylines (like the revelation of who was in the Stranger’s alien lab) other times it led to things like the ‘Living Armor From The Secret Wars’ issue, wherein it was extrapolated that since Spider-Man’s costume turned out to be an alien symbiote, then the armor pieces that Jim Rhodes brought back had to be alive, too. Checkmate is starting to remind a bit of that Quasar series (in the good way) answering questions about DC ephemera while still telling a coherent and interesting story.

CM1.jpgPreviously, on Checkmate: In the wake Max Lord’s hijacking of government resources, Checkmate has been reformed with a new series of checks and balances. The hierarchy is based on that of a chessboard, and every super-powered member is balanced by a non-super, to avoid having metahuman nerves making all the tough decisions. In their short new history, Checkmate has engaged the fanatical forces of Kobra, tried to take down a new version of the Suicide Squad (secretly being run by Amanda Waller, Checkmate’s own White Queen) and butted heads with the Outsiders, as well as dealing with the character’s own histories and baggage. DC’s universe is filled with people and organizations who would want to see Checkmate fall (R’as Al Ghul, Luthor, Kobra, The Brotherhood of Evil, heck even Wally Tortellini!) but it’s important that they be able to repel all sorts of attacks. To that end, the royals of checkmate have to chose a new head of security (referred to as “Castellan,” the old designation for the caretaker of a castle keep) to keep things under wraps…

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The reality of the situation is, Checkmate IS under constant attack, but thanks to the diligence of it’s knights and operative, they can repel the incursions… with a little help from “Moosie” Draper. An old friend of Clark Kent from high school, (but, then, isn’t EVERYBODY?) Carl Draper attacked Superman pre-Crisis as the Master Jailer, and post-Crisis as Deathtrap, but is now over his rage (he apparently had a crush on Lana Lang) and working as a security consultant for Checkmate. Today, the royals will vote on whether or not to officially install Carl as Castellan…

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Say what you will about former villains, it seems like Draper has made at least one friend in Checkmate, a man named David Said (apparently an agent of Checkmate who has apparently appeared previously) who checks on him to make sure he’s staying on his anti-villain medication. Carl affirms that he is, and expresses doubts that they’d make a guy who beat up Superman important. “If they made WALLER the White Queen and the THINKER a Bishop, why NOT you?” asks David wisely, and leaves Carl in the hallway to stew while he makes his case to the Royals.

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Draper is wrong on both counts, as both Sasha (the Black Queen) and Michael (the White King) support him, and even the Thinker puts in a (relatively) good word for him. Given the go-ahead, Draper is allowed to fire up his “Gideon II” protocols, the mysterious project that the Thinker referenced last issue. More than just a security system, Gideon II allows the former Master Jailer to interface directly with the mainframe (thanks to an implanted computer in his mind) and defend the castle with the power of his mind…

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Carl quickly sets his own agents out to get the invisible attackers, ordering thermal imagers to get around the false invisibility generators. As the physical attack is being dealt with, a continuing series of attacks, more than TWO HOURS worth of incursions, culminating in an attack by one of Jay Garrick’s most dangerous enemies: Checkmate’s own White Bishop, The Thinker. “Mr. Draper. I have been MOST EAGER to examine your work first-hand…”

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Thinker quickly finds the “Code Zoo,” a stable system used to store the A.I.’s that Checkmate has captured or encountered in their years, either the whole creature, or bits of their code. Even though the system is considered unhackable, Thinker nearly pops open the cages, so to speak, before Carl counters him with a brilliant bit of strategy. “You spend a lot of time using Terrific’s T-spheres to interact with us ‘mere humans,’ Thinker. Do you suppose that might make it easier for us to make a copy?” A second Thinker leaps to life, under Carl’s control, and counters the original immediately. The real Thinker admits defeat, and exits the systems, and Carl takes a deep breath. “I can’t believe that WORKED.” Turns out the whole thing was a bluff, but then, when you fight Superman you get used to turning an opponent’s strengths into liabilities. The powers-that-be inform him that he’s passed his first test, and allow him to fully power up his Gideon system. “By lunchtime, I’ve dealt with a rampaging Civil-War-era robot, this year’s graduating class from the Academy of Crime, and an alien astronaut screaming about “impending doom from beyond the stars!” But the worst is yet to come, as the next attack cannot be analyzed by the systems, meaning only one thing: magic.

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The Mawzir (last seen in the late, lamented ‘Hitman’ title) quickly takes out Carl’s power systems, and starts cutting through the agents of Checkmate like a ninja through strip-mall security before Carl has to make a drastic choice. Thanks to the efforts of Faust,(formerly an Outsider, back in the day) he has one more shot: triggering a portal spell, Carl teleports the Mawzir away to limbo. As one threat recedes, another comes to the fore as the League of Assassins attacks, and Carl suddenly starts to think that this strategy looks familiar. The system informs him that he’s authorized to use Checkmate’s Rooks, but there’s no explanation of what those Rooks ARE, and Moosie would rather use a tactical nuclear weapon than set them loose. Cryptic… His stratagem is as bizarre as it is brilliant, teleporting the Mawzir back into action against the league. With all his enemies slapping each other, he then remembers that he lives in a comic book and channels the one thing that trumps all in a comic…

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THE POWER KIRBY!! A boom tube with no exit? That’s hardcore, man. Later that night, Carl and the royals debrief on the situation, and he explains that he believes all the attacks to be related, as part of a feint on the part of the Assassins league. Mr. Terrific is impressed, and tells him “You did well, Castellan. VERY well…” The former Master Jailer is officially a member of Checkmate now, even getting a brisk nod from Sasha Bordeaux (apparently as close as she gets to a friendly acceptance) but Carl is distracted by something. Some THINGS, actually…

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Oh, no… I hope that his daughter wasn’t vicious enough to turn Daddy in so she could start her own super-villain career, then use defeating him as a stepping stone to the big time. I’m sure that he’s RIGHT, and that she is that nasty, but I just don’t want to believe it. If my daughter started using her powers for evil, I don’t know how I’d respond.

This issue is an interesting study, showing what Greg Rucka does better than most anyone else: get inside his character’s heads. Half the Royals of Checkmate have experience on the wrong side of the law, giving them a unique perspective on espionage and information, but it only makes them more entertaining, and the underlying tensions between the various cast members make it feel like a real workplace, with changing alliances and bubbling resentment at every turn. Or maybe that’s just MY workplace, I dunno. Either way, Rucka has put together a story that turns a minor super-villain from the 70’s into a viable character (maybe HE should take on Stilt-Man?) with able art from guest team Chris Samnee and Steve Bird. I will say that the cover is one of the strangest things I’ve EVER seen with Mawzir leaping into action, almost spider-like, against an orange sky. It’s flat-out creepy. It’s a strong issue, a nice diversion to clear the palate for the trial of Amanda Waller, and ranks 3 out of 5 stars.

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