Here’s the basic fact of this book, the way I see it: Thunderbolts is the new X-Force.
Now, the real question is, what the hell do I mean by that?
I’m not implying that Thunderbolts has been transformed into a work of pop culture satire like Milligan and Allred’s relaunch of X-Force was. Instead, I would suggest that much like the relaunched X-Force had little or nothing in common with the previous version, this new direction for Thunderbolts shares no common ground with its first seventy-five issues. The title is the only similarity between the two.
Marvel spent a lot of time hyping up the new direction as “Fight Club with superpowers,” but I’m not sure that that’s an entirely accurate description. A better one, in my opinion, would have been comparing the book to Snatch. The use of desperation as a driving force behind the plot is common between both stories, as well as the seedy underworld scene of bare-knuckle boxing, though without any of the light-hearted, caper-esque feel of that movie.
Daniel Axum, a one-time villain known at The Battler, has been released back into the world after a stay in the penitentiary. Living with his mother, he does his best to assimilate himself back into the everyday world, though the world’s fixation on superheroes does little to help him forget his past misdeeds. As well, his mother’s desire to be helpful manifests through her tendency to save newspaper clippings that recorded his defeat by Spider-Man, thinking that reminding him of how bad things were will help him realize that he’s better off having left his old life behind. It is a ploy that, predictably, falls on its face.
Meanwhile, across town, Rey Trueno and his partner, Coach Cady, run an underground fight scene that is populated solely by those of the metahuman variety. Cady devotes most of his time to the training and management of one fighter, a Killer Croc-like fellow called The Armadillo, named so because of his hunched posture and body-covering leathern armor. While the ‘Dillo, as he is called, is still winning, it is clear that the fight has gone out of him, so to speak. The results of his last fight of the issue, one with a bestial character known only as the Monster, are never clearly revealed, though the end does not bode well for Armadillo as the Monster is quicker than he and feeds on the anger of his opponents.
Back in Axum’s neck of the woods, it becomes harder and harder to escape his past. Working construction through some pulled favors, his foreman will not allow him to live down his reputation for abnormal strength. Why bring in a crane and crew to haul out a bulldozer that’s fallen down a ravine when Axum can simply pull it out himself? And what matter if it’s Axum’s lunch break? He’s only on the site as a favor anyway and he needs the job to maintain his parole, so he can stand a little extra work. These are the lines of thought that harass Axum day after day while on the job.
It is obvious from page one that Axum will be, in some way, involved in Trueno’s fights (I mean, why have him in the book if he’s not going to fight at some point?). So the conclusion shouldn’t come as a shock, but Arcudi manages to pull a surprise out in the final page in regards to the manner in which Cady does his recruiting. Clearly, there’s more to the Coach that would seem to meet the eye.
In the end, Thunderbolts isn’t a bad read. In my opinion, it’s not terribly original, since its influences in film are pretty overt. But Arcudi does do a good job conveying the sense of frustration that going straight representing for these washed-up crooks. The concept itself is something of a change of pace from the typical Marvel book. While it’s still not answering my biggest complaint about their product (that every single thing they publish deals with superheroes in some way), it is at least a different take on the men-in-spandex concept and that’s to be applauded.
Amusingly, what will more than likely keep me reading over the next couple of months will be the letter page, where undoubtedly a legion Thunderbolts fans will crawl out of the woodwork to criticize both the characters for not being the “real” Thunderbolts and the art for being “too cartoony” as they did when X-Force relaunched. And while I find their personal outrage over the relaunch amusing in a sad sort of way, I do agree with them that canceling the book and restarting with a new first issue and new name would have made just as much sense, if not more, since this book has zero ties to the “original” Thunderbolts series.
The creative team on this book is an interesting mixture, I must say. Chuck Austen is a name that’s recently been associated with the Superman family of books, doing fill-ins (seemingly alternating with Geoff Johns) on Superman in the wake of Jeph Loeb’s departure from the title. Danijel Zezelj, however, is not a frequent contributor to the line, to say the least. His dark, thickly-lined artwork is impressive (and, in my opinion, tragically underrated), but probably not the sort of thing that the average Superman fan would feel was appropriate for rendering the world’s favorite Boy Scout. So it’s surprising in a way that an unlikely pair like this manages to pull off such an intriguing story.
Superman: Metropolis is a bit of a misnomer. The mini-series should have just been called Metropolis, but I imagine it couldn’t be, for copyright reasons. In any event, Superman is only tangentially connected to this story and when he does appear, that appearance is filtered through the perceptions of our real main character, Jimmy Olsen (best known to the world as “Superman’s Pal”).
In any event, the plot of the story revolves around the B-13 technology, or “the tech” in the common parlance, and its influence on the rapidly developing infrastructure of Metropolis. That is to say, during a recent battle between Superman and Brainiac-13, assorted bits and pieces of the time-traveling villains technology were scattered about the city. At some point, those pieces began to reconstruct themselves into one cohesive system and integrate into the very streets and buildings of Metropolis itself. The end result is a different looking Metropolis than that of the Silver Age, less of a modern Chicago and more of a city from a science fiction book. Now living in a city known as the City of Tomorrow, the citizens of Metropolis remain unsure of how to react to this sudden change in their surroundings, a sentiment echoed by their legendary champion.
The death of a prominent politician gives them new reason to reconsider the effects of the alien hardware, as his very public assassination is undermined only by his nearly immediate (and completely unexplainable) resurrection at a nearby hospital. Superman, however, suspects that the Tech has some hand in the sudden return of the very dead to the world of the living and investigates. As well, the Man of Steel continues to harbor suspicions that the disappearance of Lex Luthor’s young daughter holds some connection to Luthor’s holding of the copyrights to the Tech (and hence, the rights to a veritable fortune). All the while, Jimmy Olsen, ace photojournalist, is there to capture the action on film.
What makes the book worthwhile is that despite its reliance on past continuity, its grounding in the events of a crossover from some time back, it’s entirely accessible to new readers (as evidenced by my understanding of it, since I haven’t read the Superman titles in years). As well, Austen has taken Olsen from the “Gee whiz, Superman!” sort of schtick that I think we all expect of him and given him some real guts. While it seems a bit crass, Olsen mounting the podium at the site of the assassination in an effort to get a better shot of the body is a definite turnaround for the character and was not entirely unwelcome to me. Silver Age purists will undoubtedly be irritated by the freckle-faced photographer’s change in attitude, but I thought it worked, showing that he’s grown up a bit (something that was always sort of lacking for him).
Additionally, it seems that DC will be using Metropolis to fill in for the now-cancelled Superman: Man of Steel in the family of books’ weekly shipping schedule. A cynical man would suspect that this twelve-issue mini is a trial run for a relaunch of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, but I’m not a cynical man. No, not at all.
Well, I’ve gotta tell you, this was a little bit disappointing.
I’ve heard so many good things for so long about Paul Grist and this book that I was really close to breaking down and buying the back issues off of eBay. Then a trade was published and I thought, “Hey, maybe I’ll pick that up instead, see what it’s like.” Then Image announced that they would be publishing the series from now on, starting with a new first issue. So that seemed like a logical starting point.
But now I find that I probably should have just gone back and bought the back issues after all, but I’m not really clear on what the hell is going on here.
The simple problem is that Grist isn’t treating this as a new #1. As new readers, we’re naturally expecting to have missed out on some things, but at the same time, there’s a reasonable expectation that a first issue (even the first issue of a second volume) will summarize enough past material so as to be coherent, which this issue sort of fails to do. Rather, this issue feels like one of those preview issues that Diamond and the publishers throw in my weekly shipment, not something that I’m supposed to pay $2.95 for.
At first I sort of liked what was going on. Grist basically gives each character or group of characters about two pages each for a short bio and narrative that establishes who they are and roughly how they fit into the context of the overarching story. However, where it falls apart is when he decides to shoehorn a fight scene into the middle of the book, simply for the purpose of showing the titular character in his costume, as far as I can tell. Then there’s the matter of stating that the fight takes place in the past, which left me wondering if everything that follows the fisticuffs is also in the past, because if not, there are some continuity issues that I didn’t quite follow (people are said to be dead who appear two or three panels later, etc.).
In any event, I didn’t dislike it enough to stop buying the book. It’s only $2.95, which is pretty standard these days (much to my chagrin) and it’s a bi-monthly title, so it’s not like it’s going to really stretch your budget. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I even disliked it at all. I simply feel that Grist had a rather sizeable opportunity, debuting at a much more well-known publisher, to capitalize on good word of mouth and gain some new readers. However, it’s an opportunity that I feel is mostly wasted, saved only by sheer force of talent on Grist’s part (he’s a damned fine artist, I must say). In any event, I’ll buy again in two months, hoping that the book contains some modicum of actual story material and that that story makes a bit more sense to me.
A while back I did a review where I admitted some embarrassing entertainment-related factoids about myself to illustrate a particular point. In doing so, I mentioned a handful of books that I was sort of nervous about admitting that I had never read. Now, I didn’t make a point out of saying that I’ve never read Astro City, because that’s not entirely accurate. But it might as well be, because what I’ve read of it (the first two or three issues, I believe) has always left me with the impression that I’m not the target audience for this book. So I’m loath to criticize this book, because it’s one of those titles that seems almost universally well-liked and I simply don’t get it.
It’s not that this mini-series (or the previous series, for that matter) doesn’t have an interesting premise. Astro City is about a fictional metropolis (no pun intended) and its superpowered inhabitants, though on a more existential level, it’s equally about the impact that the presence of those heroes has on the workaday world of Astro City and vice versa. Local Heroes is no exception, focusing solely on the effect that a city populated in no small portion by those with superhuman powers has on the portion of the city that lives without abilities far beyond those of mortal men.
The first issue of this mini revolves around a day in the life of a man named Donacek who works for one of Astro City’s eye-catching hotels, The Classic. Though he began humbly enough, Donacek has been on The Classic’s staff long enough that he currently serves as a resident guide of sorts, standing out in front of the entrance and fielding questions from the legion of tourists that surge through Astro City on a daily basis. The tourists themselves come almost solely for the purpose of catching a glimpse of one of the many masked marvels that call the area home and Donacek proves himself a veritable encyclopedia of superhero lore, calling upon his wealth of experiences to point travelers in the right direction. Sometimes Donacek serves only to steer them away from dangerous situations; sometimes his words go unheeded.
The problem I have with the story is that it simply feels like this has all been done before (and it has, to be fair). I’ve lost my interest in seeing people profess their love for DC’s Silver Age through a series of thinly veiled references to Superman, Batman and the rest of the Justice League. As well, I’m not sure how many more stories I can take about how the idea of larger-than-life metahuman heroes can inspire those of us without superpowers to become heroes in our own right before I snap.
Busiek, to his credit, provides a satisfying twist at the close of the issue, using a throw-away comment from the opening pages and turning it into something more meaningful, but again, it’s all in the vein of “you don’t have to have superpowers to be a hero.” Astro City has always been a nostalgic look back at a simpler time, both for the real world and the fictional world of superheroes, so if you’re reading it, you know going in what you’re going to get. If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, I have no problem with that. However, if you’ve heard good things about this book and looked at a new first issue as a good place to start, be forewarned that you may not see what all the fuss is about.
I remember chuckling to myself when I ordered this and thinking, “Yeah, that’s what the comic book industry needs: another twenty-something writing an autobiographical book about growing up in the suburbs in the ’80s…” But I ordered it anyway, didn’t I? Because Scott Mills does good work and his name counts for something in my book.
My Own Little Empire deals with themes that are common to nearly any adolescent. Being embarrassed by your choice of music, being enamored with your friend’s girlfriend, having to be two different people in two different circles of friends and the confusion that results when these worlds collide: these are sentiments and concepts that are not, by any means, unique to any one time period or locale. The story that Mills relates in the book transcends generational differences.
It’s a book that I certainly, however, did not expect to so personally identify with. I come from a town of about 1000 people. I was the captain of my high school football team, crowned the homecoming queen my senior year, and was named Mr. EHS (Elverado High School, my alma mater) during senior favorites. Although I didn’t give it much thought at the time, I was apparently one of the popular kids, despite (or perhaps because of, I don’t understand these things) spending most of my weekdays cutting class to sleep on the football field and most of my weekends playing D&D and Nintendo. So when Joe, the character that I’m taking for Mills’ stand-in says, “Lucksburg is…our own little empire and, right now at least, we’re the reigning kings,” I smiled and thought, “Ah, high school.”
Essentially, the book is about one memorable night, a night that features a Morrissey concert, an acid trip, and a “haunted” (read: abandoned) hospital. Mills’ artwork ranges from barely <>discernible to absolutely gorgeous, with the median quality falling somewhere on the more positive side of the scale, but his flair for realistic dialogue amongst high school seniors never fails to impress.
In its own way, My Own Little Empire reads like those teen movies that we all remember: Fast Times, Ferris Bueller, you know what I’m talking about. Its events are so glaringly typical that they only exist with this sort of fevered, Technicolor glow in the romanticized remembrances of those who lived them; to anyone else, there’s nothing more that needs to be said than “Ah, high school.”