Friday, April 16, 2010

The Twelve: Spearhead

Marvel, 38 pages, $ 3.99

Writer/artist: Chris Weston
Co-inker: Gary Erskine
Colorist: Chris Chuckry
Letterer: Jimmy Betancourt
Cover artist: Paolo Rivera

The most entertaining moment in this one-shot special by British writer/artist Chris Weston comes when the prose unintentionally suggests that the original, android Human Torch, Marvel's very first superhero character from 1939, went on to live in a ménage à trois with Miss America and the Whizzer after the war. Now that's a comic I could be interested in: Startling Stories: Miss America, the Android and Me—it would be like Revolutionary Road, only with more superheroes and threesomes. Paging James Sturm!

... but I digress.

I quite like The Twelve, a 12-issue maxiseries by writer J. Michael Straczynski and Mr. Weston that should have long finished by now, but that's unfortunately been in publication limbo since its eighth issue came out in the fall of 2008. It's a story about a group of American World War II superheroes who were trapped in "suspended animation" in a hidden Berlin bunker in 1945, and who have to come to terms with their alienation when they are discovered and reanimated in the present day. It's probably the best thing Mr. Straczynski has done in comics to date—a deliberate narrative with few of his usual tics on display.

This book, alas, set some time before the Allies reached Berlin in 1945, is nothing like that.

I understand Mr. Weston's desire to remind us that he'd very much like to finish the series, but the best way to get people to agree would be to make a good comic, surely.

This one isn't, mainly because it doesn't seem like Mr. Weston has anything to say, about the characters he's putting through the motions here or about anything else. It's a pretty book with solid page-to-page storytelling, certainly, and it's clear that the artist is enjoying himself as he draws the Twelve characters—along with a bunch of other World War II-themed heroes, including Captain America—in some gorgeously rendered European settings, alongside regular soldiers and opposite their German enemies. But that's the extent of his ambition here, evidently.

First and foremost, the story's failure lies with the characters. In Mr. Straczynski's care, they're a diverse and three-dimensional bunch, but they all remain utterly generic here. Captain America seems like a twit when he first appears in the story, which makes him the most intriguing among the book's cast, but even he reverts to his usual bland "Good work, son" mode soon enough. The few character beats that exist (Excello's snobbishness; the Widow's fury; Professor Zog's scruples) never go anywhere. To a degree, that's to be expected, given that any major developments will have to be saved for The Twelve proper. But surely there would have been ways to include some kind of character arc without infringing on that.

The point-of-view character who leads the reader through the proceedings is the Phantom Reporter, a Spirit type who likes to dress up in a costume but doesn't actually have any superhuman powers. And indeed, if there's such a thing as a theme to the story, this would be it: the juxtaposition of fantastic, insanely powerful characters like the Dynamic Man, Rockman or Electro (a big, remote-controlled robot, not the Spider-Man villain) and ordinary soldiers, with the Phantom Reporter serving as a middleman.

But the story deals with this in an awfully jumbled way that doesn't make a lot of sense in its best moments, and that shines a light on the deep conceptual flaws of this type of set-up in its worst. For all the Phantom Reporter's musings that it's the regular soldiers who really put out their necks and get things done, the comic neither supports nor addresses this point in any way.

On the contrary: It's always the costumed guys who drive the story, lead the way and defeat the enemy, at any stage in the plot. It's even explicitly stated at one point that, in the end, it was "the superman" who defeated the Nazi regime.

Right after making that observation, the narration supplies the obligatory disclaimer that "they are the real heroes," referring, of course, to "the average Joe in uniform [...] who spearheaded the Allied advance." Which is a problematic thing to bring up in a World War II superhero comic, particularly if it follows a scene in which a flying, bullet-proof, super-strong man uproots and beats up a German machine-gun nest without so much as breaking a sweat, and goes on to complain that it was no challenge for him. Well, where was this chap in Normandy? He and his friends would have come in handy.

Plainly, this type of story has to struggle even when the contradictions aren't explicitly dragged into the light of day. In the careless way it's dealt with here, the reader's suspension of disbelief grinds to a halt, and the whole thing collapses under its own idiocy.

What little there is of a plot doesn't add up, either. It's repeatedly suggested and never challenged in the story that Phantom Reporter is "crucial to the mission's success." Well, he's not, as it turns out, but it's never addressed or brought up again in the story.

Due to its commanding, high-pitched awe of the inherent bravery and heroism of soldiers ("This is their war... and their moment... We just make it look good."), the book repeatedly leaves the field of storytelling and starts preaching to its audience instead, which isn't just uninteresting, but also stresses the hypocrisy of this type of fiction.

Even as Mr. Weston, for fear of offending his audience's sensibilities, is busy trying to dispel the notion that regular soldiers are useless cannon fodder in the Marvel Universe, his fantasy about supermen on the battlefield wallows in liberal amounts of violence and gore—which obviously poses no risk of upsetting anyone. It never has, after all.

Not that these attitudes are unusual in American culture, but that doesn't make them any more interesting to read about when they're communicated in such an unreflected fashion. Besides, who was concerned about the importance of regular soldiers in the Marvel Universe, anyway? It's a non-issue, raised only to try and put it to rest again, by a piece of pulp that's taking itself far too seriously. Sure, the idea has potential. But here, it feels as half-baked and random as anything else in the story.

For the record, I don't mind unapologetically stupid, trashy comics with a bit of gusto. This effort, however, is a stupid and trashy comic that's boring, pretentious and scared stiff of offending anyone; it's mistaking that huge shiny sledgehammer it's wielding for something to balance with on eggshells. And that's not much fun at all.

Grade: D

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