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Jason Schachat wants to play a cleric in Paragon City.
Jason Schachat's Weekly Breakdowns
March 3, 2005

You know, there are times when I enjoy being addicted to City of Heroes. This is one of them:

After a year of struggling to understand why we should read the comic series that comes free with subscription to the game, Cryptic and NCsoft give us a reason-- it’s being relaunched by Top Cow with Mark Waid at the helm.

Oh, and it’ll still be free to game subscribers.

The joy… oh, how it tingles…

Being a sucker for modern Golden Age stories, it was hard to resist Battle Hymn #1. That said, the first issue gives us even less plot and less incentive to buy the next one than the recent Seven Soldiers of Victory premiere. In this case, we have a title that’s clearly setting up the pieces in a chess game, but the creators are still waiting to make the first move.

We open with a WWII era newsreel reporting on the construction of a nuclear-powered artificial man. Miracle of science, yadda yadda yadda. The scene quickly shifts to a lonely beach where a woman of ill repute has just been kicked out of her favorite bar. She strolls onto the sand, takes a breath, and notices a merman stepping out of the surf.

At Naval headquarters, agents review a top secret film taken of the merman punching a hole through the side of a destroyer. Clearly, he must represent an entire race of undersea people; people the Navy wants to get to know better. On the frontlines of the war, U.S. superhero Proud American poses for pictures with the troops, then gets a call to rush home. Celebrity speedster Johnny Zip gets a visit from some G-men. A costumed British hero is sent off to join the Americans.

No, really, you haven't seen this before...
All in all, it looks like we have a new team on our hands.

What we don’t have is a clear cut conflict or villain. For the most part, readers can guess that Nazis will be involved somehow, but the writer is taking his sweet time in telling us why any of this is happening. Luckily for him, Jeremy Haun’s pencils capture the same weathered photo-realism they do in the most recent Desperadoes miniseries, while the added Golden Age elements lend far more intrigue than you’d imagine.

One could compare this to early Hellboy stories where weird individuals were discovered and molded into a team, but Battle Hymn is still firmly rooted in the retro Golden Age setting. The characters represent a lovable hodgepodge of Avengers and JSA wannabes, yet the real world aspects of the story give the piece more texture than your average Marvel/DC flashback story.

Still, this issue does nothing more than introduce us to some new “heroes." Aside from knowing that America and Britain are assembling them, this story is a complete mystery. While Haun’s art makes it a compelling one, I’m going to wait another month before handing out a recommendation.

Hunter-Killer #1 teaches us two very important lessons. A) How damaging a zero issue can be when trying to establish continuity. B) How an A-list writer’s script can be twisted and tangled into a mess by an A-list penciller.

The story opens with U.S. agents prying into the last thoughts of a severed head they recovered from a fallen assassin. Sifting through the psychic residue, they weed out the address where “The Catalog”, a mysterious thingie that would allow the government to track down rogue “Ultra-Sapiens”, is located.

At the location in question, a teenage boy and his parents argue about his desire to get a job and see the rest of the world outside their remote homestead. He then grabs some iodine pills out of the cupboard and can’t figure out why he felt the need to take one, but his parents quickly recognize what’s wrong: the boy’s supernatural instincts are readying him for radiation poisoning. Something big is going down.

Mark Waid comes up with a few smart ideas in this story, but it’s pretty confusing until the end. Marc Silvestri’s art has never been the clearest, but the way he floods pages with messy linework and ugly little panels makes Hunter-Killer a strain on the eyes. More to the point, some sights are just ridiculous. The teenage boy looks like he’s 27, every character has a perfect physique, and the remote homestead looks SO remote, I doubt it would have an address, much less one involving a “Lane”.

It might have been better if Waid had worked with another artist, but this book is clearly the child of both its parents. Unfortunately, those parents don’t have much chemistry (certainly nothing approaching Waid’s connection with Barry Kitson or Mark Wieringo). The story feels choppy and disorganized, the main characters don’t demonstrate any personality, and the more interesting elements of the book are blown to kingdom come before the last page.

This title may come together, given time. It may start making sense, find a direction, and move us into bold new territory. Someday. It sure as hell ain’t happening this month.

Notice where the cover quote comes from?
Just when the title was starting to get sleepy, Powers #9 pulls the usual Bendis switcheroo. Admittedly, this outing isn’t as cleverly constructed as twists of the past, but it’ll still leave you feeling gut-punched and slap-happy.

Having discovered supervillain The Joke bumped off in his lair last time around, Detectives Walker and Pilgrim delve deeper into their investigation of the Blackguard murders. This time, however, they face the new threat of a nosey reporter who knows way more than the police would like. Oh, and she may have had a thing with Walker in the past.

Back on the case, Walker and Pilgrim verify that The Joke had his tongue ripped from his throat, indicating someone was tired of him mouthing off. But, with The Joke’s innate powers, that means the killer had to be one helluva beefcake. And, as if that weren’t enough of a concern, Pilgrim’s own super strength seems ready to get her into a whole new world of trouble.

Of course, none of that’s surprising, but I’m not going to reveal the surprise ending. It’s a surprise. Deal with it.

The twist satisfies, but it was needed, since the plot started to simmer down. Powers still has yet to think up a twist as powerful as the Olympia “tell all” issue from the last volume, but this one still catches you with your pants down. Next issue should thread Callista and the other rogue powers back into the story, providing more excitement and bloodshed than this issue. For now, the party’s just getting started. Recommended.

The X-franchise may finally have kissed Chuck Austen goodbye, but Peter Milligan doesn’t quite prove himself the series’ savior on X-Men #167. We’re still knee-deep in melodrama, members of other X-teams are flitting in and out of the narrative without any explanation, and, even though we haven’t seen this story before, we’ve seen this story before.

On the streets of Los Angeles, a young mutant slinks down the sidewalk, remembering how his wealthy human employers wouldn’t let him into their shelter when the mutant riots began. It was probably a good idea, he thinks, since the madness has also taken hold of him, pushing him to lead an army of crazed mutants on their rampage.

Down in Antarctica, Havok and his team scour a mutant colony turned abattoir, hoping for a clue to the cause of this mutant madness. Each member starts to react differently to a presence deep inside the facility, remembering horrific ordeals, shooting their mouths off, and giving in to paranoia. Then they find the fungoid dinosaur thing responsible for all the chaos and think it quite a good idea to take the monstrosity back home with them.

Yup, it’s the same old story.

Now, while Emma Frost’s sudden appearance last issue was confusing, Wolverine’s makes even less sense. He was waiting in the spare X-jet the whole time? Does that mean Emma WASN’T a psi-projection when she suddenly appeared last month? If all this is true, why didn’t they send a heavy hitter like Wolvie in when those stir-crazy mutants were trying to kill them?

Rogue and Gambit continue to dance around their intimacy issues, though now with even more angst since Gambit’s blindness was cured before he could milk all the angst out of it. Tensions are also mounting between Polaris and Havok, though Lorna’s madness makes for a better excuse (Havok’s constant redesigning of his costume doesn’t help his own case much, however).

But what it all comes down to is this team is still ineffective, uninteresting, and unimportant. Nothing they do will amount to much, and no changes will be permanent. While Milligan may deserve some blame for watering down his bibilical tale with the standard soap opera elements, this is, again, something where the whole Marvel staff needs a good slap on the wrist.

X-Men has only ever been good when the creators have been allowed a certain measure of freedom. Now that the team has become the whiney, underpowered joke of the X-franchise, the characters need to grow. Rogue needs to be more than “I can’t touch people”, Havok needs to be more than “I’m not my brother”, Iceman needs to be more than “I didn’t mean to be so insulting”, and, for God’s sake, stop taking Gambit back to square one every six months.

With a team this lackluster and so many replacement mutants floating around the mansion, it doesn’t even matter if one of these schmoes dies. Heck, just look how Austen tossed Juggernaut and Nocturne into a black hole without anyone batting an eyelash (and Juggs may have been the most well developed character on the team). Until Marvel can give us a team we can care about, there simply isn’t any reason to read X-Men.

Jason Schachat

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