Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Deathmatch Volume One (2013)

At its heart, Deathmatch is just a more lethal variation on Marvel's Contest of Champions and Secret Wars (which is directly referenced in an alternate cover) with off-brand analogues of more famous super-heroes. What does it say about our culture that this is only one of two current books in which super-people are forced into deadly gladiatorial combat by mysterious beings working toward unrevealed ends? It says The Hunger Games made a lot of money, and publishers want some. At least the comic book medium ripping off the old trope is much easier and more gratifying these days than tired Comic Code Approved variations on Ben Hur, Rollerball, and the like.

While Marvel is busy murdering D-list teen characters for profit in Avengers Arena, BOOM! advertised transparent copies of all your favorite heroes in no-holds-barred mortal combat. They didn't quite deliver, not because of fault in the product, but because it's better than it was probably intended to be. While writer Paul Jenkins works in stock types, not dissimilar from generated characters in an '80s roleplaying game (oh so Champions,) they're not blatantly derivative enough to fulfill the role of the Squadron Supreme vs. the Extremists, or whatever. You can trace Spider-Man or the Hulk in the DNA of new introductions like Dragonfly and Nephilim, but different origins, quirks in powers/personality, and the inventive designs of series artist Carlos Magno differentiate the book's characters from their intended parallels. By making the mistake of hiring people who care about their craft and are possessed of imagination, Deathmatch baits-and-switches costumed gore porn with a solid book.

The series is not without fault, however. It recalls Keith Giffen's "Five Years Later" Legion of Super-Heroes stories, involving dozens of characters that aren't thoroughly introduced speaking familiarly about matters rendered obtuse to a reader lacking key information. It's also terribly distracting having obvious swipes like The Rat (Rorschach) working alongside more general types like Sable, because in the back of your mind the reader is trying to figure out "who they really are" instead of focusing on the story. The scripts are disjointed, as if they were first drafts written at different times, or sections were edited out without bridging material replacing them. Then there's the fatigue that comes with the umpteenth out of control faux Superman being managed by ersatz Batman, although the book is good about borrowing from less well worn capes. However, so many characters are killed so quickly, there's a strong detachment from the proceedings, as obscurities the reader isn't invested in fight to the death in less than thrilling fashion. It's frustrating that everyone is keeping secrets from one another and the audience while constantly teasing their revelation. That might make sense in a feudal fantasy setting, but among four color mystery men in a true life-or-death circumstance, the authorial hand is waving inches from your face declaring "I'm not touching you! I'm not touching you!" The book lives or dies based on how steeped the reader is in comic book cliché, so the withholding of standard exposition becomes antagonistic.

Deathmatch is interesting despite these complaints. The main characters hook you, and there's such variety in the designs that you want to look at these figures interacting. The plot is never boring, and you do want to find out the truth of all the goings on. The art is quite intricate, and the storytelling sensibility recalls European sci-fi strips more than common American crap. Even if you find the premise unsavory, the writing and art are simply too good to pass on sampling at $9.99, and I'll be back myself for the second volume. The knowledge that the series wraps in a third volume is definitely a motivator when so much in this first edition strings readers along, though. I'd say Strikeforce: Morituri fans should especially give it a peek. Both books are less about violent death than its emotional impact, and are the better for it.

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