Wednesday, April 24, 2013

New Crusaders, Book One: Rise of the Heroes (2013)

I've always wanted to like the MLJ-Archie super-heroes, but never have. When I say something like "I'm not a big fan of Alan Moore," it feeling like a confession, but that's more the statement of an obvious, near universal truth. There are dozens, perhaps even hundreds of people across the globe who legitimately like these early entries in the genre, but I think the vast majority of readers who care in any way are like me, more enthused about the idea of them existing than the printed evidence of such.

MLJ got its start in 1939 with the super-hero boom, and proceeded to churn out one unoriginal example after another with the sole initial innovation of inventing the brazenly patriotic Shield. The Comet wasn't too bad, but he wasn't terribly popular, so he was the first super-hero to be murdered. His brother donned a costume to avenge his death, and the Hangman hung around for a few years as a more right-leaning Batman, which was a cool development. Beyond that though, the MLJ heroes were also-rans, and when the boom began to bust in 1943, MLJ shifted focus to a more reliable moneymaker. Archie Andrews became the greatest star of teen-skewing humor comics, taking over the entire company. During lucrative super-hero revivals in the '60s, '80s, and '90s, the old MLJ heroes were trotted out to try to siphon off the waves, failed every time, and died a swift death. I had several of the ugly, inferior Remco Mighty Crusaders action figures meant to appeal to fans of Kenner's Super Powers Collection and Mattel's Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, which can still be had decades later on their original cards as whole sets on eBay for less than single figures from the lines they imitated. My brother and I also tried most of the early !mpact Comics, wherein DC Comics proved that they had the talent and marketing heft to limp along for three years licensing the characters whereas Archie would typically just cut their loses after a year.

There are numerous complex reasons why the Archie super-heroes have never gone over, but the most succinct rational is that they're lukewarm mercenary crap featuring cheesy bygone concepts, typically produced by hacks and nobodies with their finger resting firmly on the toenail of the market. Just a few years ago, masochists that they are, DC licensed the characters again and tried to relaunch them on the back of a J. Michael Straczynski revamp, except the guy only wrote four introductory one-shots before DC turned the project over to whoever was open in the freelancer pool. It seemed strange that Archie would turn around and offer another take in a short span of time, where usually they let the stink fade for a decade or two. Not to be cynical, but given their history, it's hard not to see New Crusaders as a means of promoting their online subscription service allowing access to the entire catalog of decades of failure to make a dent in the market. I'm sure keeping the intellectual property alive at a time when super-hero films are huge at the box office is another side benefit. They've been pretty open about their willingness to lease these things out.

Alternately, New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes is a vanity project for Archie talent to do super-heroes as formulaically as possible, which for me is worse than it being a cash grab, because I would hate to crush their dreams of adequacy. The premise is that the events of all of the stories published by Archie subsidiaries are still in continuity, but the stars of all those books just died in a fire, leaving the mantles to their teenage offspring/wards. It's screwed right there at the premise, because these "new" Crusaders would be pushing thirty even if you only factored in the '80s stories, but they make a point of reaching back to 1940s material just to insure you can't get past the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff. The Archie touch is there by starting the story in the very staid, whitebread Riverdale type setting of "Red Circle," which had known peace for all of the kids' lives. Rather than any sort of meritocracy, the kids are immediately positioned to succeed their parents by the demands of inheritance, despite their having been blissfully unaware of their heritage and having had no training whatsoever. Nothing like Caucasian entitlement to get you rooting for these chumps.

There are two non-white tokens, who are singled out as having not been sired as direct seed of Crusaders. The Comet's chief defining characteristics are being colored darker than the other kids and having to share his origin with a white boy. Jaguar's main characteristics are crippling social anxiety and having borrowed most directly from !mpact. Also, these are the two characters with the least and most distressingly catastrophic control of their abilities. I think Brad Paisley wrote "Accidental Racist" about this comic. Of course, that's still better than Steel Sterling, who lacks any discernible personality, or the gratingly obnoxious Fireball, which I'm sure won't foreshadow his story arc at all. Fly Girl and the Web are the best of the lot by virtue of not being irritating and hovering in the outer orbit of actual characterization. The team is led by the Shield, who is basically a more abrasive and reckless Captain America. Even by the dim standards of parental guidance set by the super-hero genre, the Shield manages to limbo under the bar in the field of child endangerment. There is literally a talking monkey in this book who would better serve these kids.

Ben Bates' art style is a poor man's Bruce Timm/Mike Parobeck/Ty Templeton, but gets a little problematic when the first issue ends with a massacre. Getting a pass as all-ages fare is prohibited when blood gushes out of an office drone's every orifice or cops are murdered gangland execution style during a prison riot, so Bates and (admittedly seamless) relief artist Alitha Martinez shouldn't have tried to sit at the big kids' table. The storytelling and character "acting" are overblown in a cartoony American way with Japanese manga touches. The western elements make the violence uncomfortable in a way Ian Flynn's script isn't prepared to address, and the eastern ones reinforce this as a contemporary work that disallows the quaint wrongness of stuff like Micky Mouse contemplating suicide in comic strips released at the only point in history where these characters halfway worked. The character designs are mind-numbing in their mediocrity, like a dish with every bit of flavor boiled out of it. They make DC's maligned efforts with this lot look like the height of haute couture by comparison. Origins are dispensed with as dutifully dull as possible, better recalling Strikeforce: Morituri than the magic rings and mad science of old. I tried to cut the book some slack by recognizing the number of characters that needed to be introduced in the span of a mini-series, but then I watched the Game of Thrones pilot for the first time, where the same challenge was met and overcome about a zillion times better than this. If the writer couldn't handle seven leads, he should have given us a P.O.V. character instead of wall-to-wall tropes.

New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes is what I refer to as a "Phantom Menace." There's always that one joker who thinks they could have done a better job with a work of art, and insists on regaling you with their "improvements." In the case of a "Phantom Menace" though, the entire audience becomes a righteous incarnation of that guy, because you're being subjected to a piece so wrong-headed that you can't help but editorialize in a constructive way. This book looks like it should be kid friendly, so where is the adventure of Carl Barks' Ducks, or the warmth of Pixar, or the abandon of Axe Cop, or even the accessible low comedy of Shreck? Why is it so grim in such a common way that you might as well give a kid a flashier DC/Marvel offering with more well-rounded characters? Thanks to the decompressed storytelling, this book has the same deliberate pacing as every other comic on the stands, but doesn't take that opportunity to develop their characters or deepen the plotting. It reminds me of how aspiring artists can't look at the most dubious bottom rung talents as their competition, because those guys are already getting work for reasons that escape you, and who throws good money after bad that stays in business? There's nothing remotely new about these Crusaders; they are virtually interchangeable with anything else in the market, without any cause for recommending it above the rest of the dreck.

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