Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pantheon: Welcome To The Machine (2007/8)

The Pantheon mini-series began in 1998, four years before "Fables" turned Bill Willingham from a Vertigo hanger-on to a heavyweight. For years, I'd heard good things about his "Elementals" from the '80s, and I actually met him at a con in the '90s. I had him sign an issue of "Showcase" with a Huntress story he'd pencilled, and bullshit with him as best I could with my relative lack of familiarity (mostly about Hal Jordan's going nuts and killing a bunch of people, the book Willingham was signing the most that day.) When "Pantheon" was announced, I had plenty of good feeling for the guy, and read the first five issues published. You see, it had taken over a year for those five issues to be released by tiny Lone Star Press. There were also many notations of tie-ins with an anthology book they were publishing that featured some Pantheon characters. I figured, this thing would read a lot better in one sitting with those side stories included, so I'll just wait for the trade. I wasn't sure anything past #6 was solicited through Diamond Distribution, but the Lone Star Press site announces seven additional issues, with only one out of stock. Who knew? But then, it took until 2004 to get to #13, with only one issue released in both 2002 and 2003. I'm not sorry I waited.

Finally, here's the trade paperback, arrived after a previous cancellation. It collects the first half of the story, with some extras that are either new or culled from those short stories I never read. The work is in full color and on glossy stock for the first time. I'm glad for it, as I enjoyed becoming reacquainted. A customer I had who was a Willingham follower explained to me that where Elementals was the writer going out of his way to avoid cliche, Pantheon was intended to embrace them. The book is chock full of obvious analogues for famous super-heroes, and the plot revolves around another war of the super-heroes along the grim lines of "Watchmen" and "Kingdom Come," although it seems to owe the most to Alan Moore's infamous unpublished "Twilight" proposal. The analogues are much truer to the spirit of super-heroes than the type of smears Warren Ellis loves so much. More like Jim Shooter given carte blanche for a modern Secret Wars, especially seeing as so few of Willingham's more risque leanings show here. Basically, this is a fairly familiar premise vindicated by deft execution on Willingham's part. If you've enjoyed the company I've mentioned Pantheon keeping, I'd recommend picking up this trade.

... with caveats. The coloring suits the book, in that this is a pretty mainstream costume epic with dark touches. However, it's pretty flat, and it looks like some of the art may have been tweaked to accommodate it. Most of the pencil art was provided by Mike Leeke, probably best known for his really stiff looking figures on Valiant titles like "H.A.R.D. Corps," "Psi-Lords" and "Deathmate." Maybe inker Bill Williams helps, because Leeke's work looks much better here. I don't see either winning awards, but they serve a story that makes incredible demands of them fairly well. The character designs are quite diverse, most likely originated by Willingham, and the cast is large to the tune of "Legion of Super-Heroes." Ty Romsa stepped in for the final chapter, and his work is actually a bit more fluid and moody than Leeke's, but the inks and colors keep the look consistent.

As I said, this trade collects half a story, though its episodic nature takes the edge off that. The first issue was devoted to setting up characters, while the second and third are an extended flashback that tells a complete story about a very powerful, very wicked little boy's body count. What appears to be the primary story really begins in number four. It amounts to Ozymandias by way of Metron and Magneto taking over a superhuman prison, and beginning a lethal game of chess against his fellows to save the world his own damned way. Unfortunately, that tale slows in chapter six, a series of origins and character moments for the additional villains of the piece. There's a seventh add-on where everything screeches to a halt to tell Dynasty's backstory. She's the female Superman that leads the forces of good, and this is a new short piece that ends the trade as inorganically as possible. Literally, there's a large "the end" where some ad for a second Pantheon trade could have run, preferably with an estimated time of arrival.

That marks my biggest concern with recommending this trade. It took a decade to collect these stories, and about a year from the trade being solicited, resolicited, and shipped. If I don't get you to buy a trade, I might not be given the opportunity to purchase a second volume. Alternately, you may join me in waiting a good long while for that follow-up, or maybe giving in and buying the back issues. I figure, you now know the score, and can come to your own decision. For myself, I'll be keeping my fingers crossed and keeping a closer eye on those Lone Star Press solicitations...

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