Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Life and Times of Savior 28 #1

IDW Publishing, 22 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: J.M. DeMatteis
Artist: Mike Cavallaro
Colorist: Andrew Covalt
Letterer: Neil Uyetake

Mr. DeMatteis is the writer of some of my favorite Spider-Man stories—I haven’t read those comics in a while, but in my memory, at least, the “Kraven’s Last Hunt” storyline with artist Mike Zeck and a later run on Spectacular Spider-Man with Sal Buscema, in particular, stand out as being much more concerned with character than a lot of the superhero stories produced at the time. I liked them as a teenager, even though I only had access to badly translated German reprints.

The first issue of Savior 28, unfortunately, doesn’t seem very concerned with character at all.

The story’s premise is quite intriguing. The book’s title character is James Smith, aka Savior 28, a Captain-America-type superhero who, through a string of tragic events, realizes that punching things is actually not a solution to anything. And so Savior 28 becomes a pacifist and starts holding anti-violence speeches. Naturally, he’s chastised for turning his back on people, and he ends up being shot dead by a sniper. We’re left with Dennis McNulty, Savior 28’s former sidekick. McNulty, who generally admires Savior 28 but seems to have quite a different tack on the whole violence thing, serves as the story’s point-of-view character.

As far as set-ups go, this is certainly intriguing—not just as a commentary on the superhero genre that, curiously enough, I don’t recall anyone attempting before, but also as a story on its own terms. (Arguably, it might be a comment on Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, as well, which also has the title character shot by a sniper and replaced by his more violent sidekick. And, incidentally, Mr. DeMatteis says he originally intended to tell the story in Captain America himself when he was writing the book 25 years ago; he says it ended up being shot down—no pun intended—by Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter.)

In theory, I’d be very interested in reading this type of book.

Once you get down on the page, though, it all falls apart. Virtually the entire story is told in flashback mode, narrated by McNulty, who keeps telling us what Savior 28 does or feels in a given moment. This is problematic for two reasons.

For one thing, the narration puts a strain on plausibility. How on earth does McNulty know, for instance, that, “like an automaton he [Savior 28] surfed from station to station, watching the footage again and again,” which occurred while Savior 28 was supposedly alone and withdrawn at home? It doesn’t make sense, and it’s distracting.

Second, and more significantly, the point of view puts a considerable distance between the reader and the characters. It prevents me from giving a toss about what’s going on with Savior 28, because hardly anything is dramatized; I’m told the plot, and I’m supposed to care about the plot because I’m told about it, and that’s just not how it works. It could still enable me to empathize with McNulty, at least, but it doesn’t do that, either, because I’m given too little context on his character—he’s barely ever in the story he tells, and once he does take center stage, the impact is nil. What should seem like a big twist just makes me shrug and wonder why I should care.

So, with the best will in the world, I’m afraid this is a misfire. Savior 28 has the kernel of a good idea, which the first issue completely fails to communicate in a compelling fashion. The storytelling is a throwback to some very bad 1980s habits that have long been ousted from comics, and justly so.

Grade: D+

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