We’re halfway through this bad boy, so this seems like as good a time as ever to really hash it out so far. You’ve got J Michael Straczynski writing and Chris Weston covering art chores. You’ve got a twelve issue mini (MAXI) series about twelve Golden Age Marvel (Timely) characters sent to the present day. And you’ve got one of the best books on the market right now. My guess is that this is what reading All Star Superman must be like.
So yes. The whole “man out of time” superhero story has been done before. Quite a lot. Hell, Marvel’s got multiple books running right now that feature such a trope. You’ve got your Avengers/Invaders. You’ve got your current Captain America mini storyline. You’ve arguably got your 1985, though from a slightly different perspective. This is well traveled ground both now and throughout the history of superhero comics. So what makes this book any different from JSA or Captain America? Well, I do believe that the characters chosen for this book were very specific. Let’s not mince words here. These are very lame characters. I have the #0 issue that reprinted a lot of issues featuring characters from The Twelve. And man, are they painful. And that’s why this works. This is not something as simple as many of the other man out of time stories have been. This is a Jew hiding his heritage to escape persecution. This is a born performer whose brand of comedy hasn’t evolved past the 1940’s. This is a non powered writer caught up way above his head. All tropes, but not ones that we have necessarily seen previously in comic stories like this.
JMS isn’t writing this in the shadow of Civil War. Sure, there’s a little aside where the recently thawed heroes are asked to register and don’t think twice about it (because who would ever question the government?), but outside of that, we’re just watching people trying to live their lives. We’re watching Black Widow apparently do very violent things that she may or may not have any choice or control over. We’re watching Mastermind Excello forced into hiding due to the oversaturation of television and radio waves. We’re watching the Phantom Reporter become more agonized and frustrated with his place in the world as he suffers from writer’s block (as one’s mind drifts back to that last splash page from the first issue…). This book is a tragedy, But it’s not Shakespearian in scope. You have to go back further. This is tragedy in such a way that was populated by the Greeks. This is Agamemnon coming home victorious from the Trojan War only to find his wife bedding another man and ready to kill him. And of course the moment that puts this into sharp relief is the true revelation of Rockman.
I mean, Rockman is a forlorn chracter practically from the moment you see him. He’s some kind of underground leader of Mole Men on some very potent steroids. But the act of being frozen for sixty years has cut him off from his people. So he spends every night in the basement pounding on the ground trying to call his people to him. And Chris Weston really shines with the facial expressions (which is the case with everyone, really), etching this sense of melancholy pride and loneliness. Well, in issue six we get some insight into the background of Rockman. And it’s horribly depressing. And pitch perfect. You’re going to read Rockman completely differently after this, and it just serves to reinforce the human drama upon which this entire series is built.
There is nothing to complain about in both this issue and this series. The writing is spot on. The pacing is deliberate and adds to the tension (you KNOW shit’s going to go down with Electro. But JMS isn’t going to rush it). The art is fantastic and some of the best facial expression work I’ve ever seen. The mood is muted and just, well, sad. There’s no villain. There doesn’t need to be one. Sure, it’s clichèd, but these characters’ worst enemies are themselves. They’re DEEPLY flawed, and those flaws will contribute to their downfall. Am I of the opinion that the Phantom Reporter is so desperate for a story that he’s going to end up being the cause for that splash page from issue one? Perhaps. No matter what happens, everything to this point has been perfectly realized and in character for every hero in this book. It all makes sense. It all flows wonderfully. This is the type of writing that got me hooked to the comics medium in the first place (first through Maus, and then in an entirely different way, Identity Crisis). And truly, if this year hadn’t seen the release of Casanova #14, this would be the best comic I’ve read all year. And it keeps getting better issue upon issue. Could this be the type of book people look back to years after the fact and revere? Sure is hard to tell when you’re in the middle of it, but the potential is certainly there. This is a different kind of superhero book, and I LOVE IT.
In case you couldn’t tell, this sucker gets five stars.
Oh, and that cover is badass.