Or – “This Is The One Reviving Golden Age Heroes WITHOUT Alex Ross…”
The comic book publishing field is full of unexplainable little synchronicities. The Doom Patrol (a group of outcast super-powered freaks led by a wheelchair bound genius) debuted just months before the X-Men (ditto.) Swamp Thing and Man-Thing were brainstormed at the same time, The Invaders and the Freedom Fighters showed up nearly simultaneously, and The Avengers and the JLA both had red-skinned androids who were created by their sinister foes go straight and join their teams in 1968 (The Vision and The Red Tornado, for those who don’t keep track.) So, I wasn’t surprised to find this book and the relatively similar “Superpowers” from Dynamite being compared to one another the other day at the store (Gatekeeper Hobbies, Huntoon and Gage, Topeka! Ask Deon to stop buying volume 1 of X-Factor!) What DID surprise me was how harshly this book was being judged…
Previously, on The Twelve: In the waning days of (the Marvel Universe version of) Dubya Dubya Two, nearly all the extant costumed heroes descended upon Berlin to take down the Nazis, and in so doing grab a piece of the glory and have an “I was there” story when they got old and grey. Unfortunately for a few of them, the Ratzis still had a few tricks up their sleeve, and an even dozen of the most obscure Marvels (the golden age Black Widow and Electro, The Phantom Reporter, Rockman, Fiery Mask, Mastermind Excello, Mister X, Captain Wonder, The Witness, Laughing Mask, the Blue Blade and Dynamic Man) were gassed and Birdseye-flash-frozen. When they awoke from their Phillip Fry naps, they found themselves to be ten men, one woman, and one mechanoid with a Philco for a face out of time, with nary a Michael J. Fox in sight. It’s a take on one of modern Marvel’s oldest stories (Captain America, anyone?) but with a decidedly more modern edge.
Our issue starts exactly where the last one ended, with an ominous flash-forward showing the Blue Blade, apparently dead at the hands of the Phantom Reporter. “He was a drunk, and a loser, and nobody liked him,” says P.R. of B.B. “but he didn’t deserve this.” We flash a bit back, and see the heroes being given the full-blown conquering hero treatment, something which sits differently with each of them. Blue Blade wants to soak up the adulation, while Black Widow seems distracted, and Captain Wonder asks the question we all want the answer to: Where the hell are all the flying cars and rocket packs? The Twelve are given luxurious accomodations (carefully designed to mimic their native time of the 40’s) but not everyone is interested in resting, as Dynamic Man declares himself the man of the future and sets out on his own.
Captain Wonder is given a letter that will lead him to his long-lost loved-ones, and he flies away, eyes filled with pain. I should note, I suppose, that my manager Deon (who may be replacing Tom Grice in the “Wrong, Sir! WRONG!” category, if this assessment is any indicator) uses Captain Wonder’s short pants as the main reason why Superpowers is, in his opinion, a better title. At this point, I have to disagree, for two reasons. One, Captain Wonder had short pants in 1942, and I enjoy the fact that all the ridiculous monkeysuits are unchanged. Second, and more importantly, I’m much more interested in seeing the emotional toll that their journey takes on the heroes, something I have yet to see in Superpowers. Captain Wonder lands to visit his wife and sons, the family that, from his perspective, he saw only yesterday, and begins with a greeting. “Hey, honey…” he whispers, “I’m home.” The row of Jordan family graves makes no response, and the red, white and blue hero collapses in tears. It’s a heart-rending moment, marred only by the fact that Cap’s real name is given as Steve three pages earlier, but his wife calls him “Earl” throughout the flashback that follows.
As the crate containing Electro the TV-faced-robot arrives, we see Dynamic Man returning to his super-duties, stopping robberies, saving people from disasters, bringing would-be muggers to the police. But when he tries to stop a woman’s purse from being snatched, he mistakenly grabs her husband, who was chasing the attacker. When the Caucasian woman cries for D.M. to put down her African-American husband, a look of sheer disbelief/disgust crosses his face, and suddenly his ‘future-man-with-blond-hair-and-lightning-bolt-adorned-costume” bit takes on a whole new context.
Der Ubermenschen Dynamic Man throws the innocent man down, and leaps into the night, snarling, “Sorry, but I have better things to do with my time.” Turns out he wasn’t quite as ready for the future as he thought, eh?
Back at Stately Twelve Manor, the Black Widow communes with her infernal master, and Rockman (who claims to be the long-lost noble prince of a subterranean race of rock-men) drags his mattress to the basement, the better to signal to his “lost kingdom.” At this point, we don’t know if he’s crazy or not, but the book ends with him pounding his fists, signalling his people to come take him home.
It’s a sentiment that all twelve of the temporal castaways feel acutely, and J. Michael Straczynski really hammers home their alienation and discomfort. He takes their silly Golden Age costumes and weird powersets and plays it perfectly straight, not changing even the silliest, most childish aspects of their origins to make the characters “cooler.” Chris Weston’s art is interesting, showing a great range of expression, modeling many of the characters after actors of the 40’s, with a Black Widow who looks like Veronica Lake, and a Blue Blade who evokes Errol Flynn. It’s an interesting start, and many of the character bits (like Mastermind Excello’s super-senses being overwhelmed by the myriad of communications signals in the air, or the Phantom Reporter’s realization that his “sources” are long dead) really strike home. It’s the kind of thing you might have expected Stan Lee to have done, if comics were this sophisticated in 1963 when he revived former Captain America Steve Rogers (who is, as you probably expect, STILL dead.) I find the setup more accessible than that of Superpowers, whose first issue hinged upon endless expositional conversation with two ghosts, and am really looking forward to where this goes. The pacing is a little slow (a side-effect of the “write for the trade” theory pervading the industry) but overall, it’s a very good effort, earning a solid 3.5 stars.