Wednesday, December 9, 2009

S.W.O.R.D. #1

Marvel, 30 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Pencilers: Steven Sanders, Jamie McKelvie
Inkers: Craig Yeung, Jamie McKelvie
Colorist: Matt Wilson
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Cover artists: John Cassaday, Laura Martin

What S.W.O.R.D. reminds me of the most, at first glance, are the Men in Black films and the TV shows Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5—given that the story is set on a big space station populated by humans and space aliens, this is fairly unsurprising. I'm sure that the comparison must have occurred to the creators at one point or other in the process.

And there's nothing wrong with that. The concept of a government-sponsored agency dealing with extra-terrestrial threats is broad enough to accommodate more than one take, and so is the idea of a space station serving as a hub between humans and aliens. And combining the two is an intriguing choice for a Marvel series, certainly. After all, cultures from outer space have been a staple of the Marvel Universe from the beginning. There must be hundreds of them, at this stage, and I don't recall something like S.W.O.R.D. coming up before.

S.W.O.R.D.—the acronym, as we learn here, stands for "Sentient World Observation and Response Department"—was introduced in Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men, as a counterpart to Marvel's long-standing super-spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Basically, if S.H.I.E.L.D. is Earth's MI5 in the Marvel Universe, then S.W.O.R.D. is its MI6.

Mr. Whedon and Mr. Cassaday also introduced Agent Abigail Brand, S.W.O.R.D.'s green-haired femme fatale leader, and her alien aide Sydren. Further, Astonishing X-Men established that Lockheed—first introduced in 1983 by Chris Claremont and Paul Smith, in one of the X-Men's space adventures—was not a little alien "pet dragon," but a highly trained and intelligent undercover agent of S.W.O.R.D. The final character brought over from the Joss Whedon story is the X-Men's Beast, a.k.a. Dr. Henry McCoy, who is Agent Brand's boyfriend and, evidently, a card-carrying member of S.W.O.R.D. now.

The first thing Kieron Gillen does right in transforming the X-Men supporting characters into viable headliners is to build the world that S.W.O.R.D. exists in. Right on the first page, we learn that there are multiple major events before breakfast every day that call for the existence of S.W.O.R.D.: a very bad-tempered alien invasion force, a fugitive from outer space seeking asylum, a "mysterious spooky signal."

You get the sense that this is a real agency with a real mission. By the end of S.W.O.R.D. #1, it feels like a dozen plot threads are playing out at once, in a way that builds momentum and allows you to empathize with the cast.

More importantly, S.W.O.R.D. is driven by believable characters, whose objectives and desires imbue the series with a genuine urgency before the first issue is over.

Right in the first scene, Mr. Gillen throws notorious Marvel Universe bureaucrat Henry Peter Gyrich—a supporting character who's been pestering the Avengers and the X-Men since the late 1970s—into the mix as Brand's foil. Appointed by Brand's superiors (the same shady committee that supervised S.H.I.E.L.D. at one point, evidently), Gyrich is her new "co-commander." It doesn't take long for Gyrich's agenda—and the first major conflict between the two—to emerge.

Brand herself is still the tough-as-nails leader from Astonishing X-Men. Unlike the other major characters in S.W.O.R.D., she is played close to the vest, but Mr. Gillen knows when to humanize the character. When the Beast makes her smile, news of her brother (who, intriguingly, happens to look like a smaller, greener version of her furry boyfriend) stops her in her tracks or her mysterious prisoner, only known as "Unit," scares her, Brand's exterior is cracked open just long enough for a fully formed, well-rounded character to peek through.

An area where the creators don't entirely succeed is in making "The Peak," S.W.O.R.D.'s giant, cloaked space station in Earth's orbit, a real place. For one thing, the design, as drawn by Steven Sanders, looks rather pedestrian. I appreciate that the creators offer 22 densely packed pages in the lead story, but in this instance, a more imposing establishing shot wouldn't have been a waste of space. For another, the station's interior doesn't look nearly busy enough. The corridors and the bar are too empty, Brand's office is far too big, and in general, the visuals lack the sense of importance and reality required by the story. It's easy enough to fix, luckily.

I last saw Mr. Sanders' work in The Five Fists of Science, his 2006 collaboration with writer Matt Fraction. In S.W.O.R.D., the artist uses a different, more conventional style than in the aforementioned book, and overall, he's a much better storyteller than he was three years ago. He still seems to be struggling with perspective, though: In the final panel on page three, where Gyrich is meant to be staring and pointing his finger at Brand, something went horribly wrong; and when Brand repeatedly observes that Gyrich is "hideously deformed," you can't help but agree with her—and wonder if Mr. Gillen does, too.

Those shortcomings aside, though, Mr. Sanders' art looks dynamic and appropriate for the material. His characters are alive (watch what he's doing with the Beast and Lothi's ears), and he knows how to make the most of Mr. Gillen's deadpan humor, visually—which is crucial, considering that there's a lot of it.

I also don't mind the license Mr. Sanders takes with the Beast's design. It is a rather loose interpretation, sure. Then again, so was Mr. Cassaday's, and few artists have managed to do Frank Quitely's 2001 redesign of the character justice, so I'd rather see a take that a given creator is comfortable with.

In addition to the 22-page lead story, there's also an eight-page back-up that mainly serves to flesh out Lockheed and shed some light on what's going on with him in the main story. Illustrated by Mr. Gillen's Phonogram collaborator Jamie McKelvie, the back-up strip picks up, in fairly convincing fashion, a major plot thread from Mr. Whedon and Mr. Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men that adds to the overall intrigue and momentum of the story.

Also, it shows Agent Brand chewing out, threatening and physically abusing one of the cutest and most innocent-looking space aliens I've ever seen in a comic, which goes a long way in making her an appealing, unconventional character that you want to learn more about.

There are a few kinks to be worked out, but ultimately, this is a delightfully vivid comic. It's full of compelling characters and intriguing plot twists, and it's got a fabulous sense of humor. S.W.O.R.D. is easily the most promising Marvel title launched this year.

Grade: B+

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