Monday, August 20, 2007

Review: The Order #1


Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: Barry Kitson
Inker: Mark Morales
Colorist: Dean White
Letterers: Art Monkeys Studios
Assistant Editor: Alejandro Arbona
Editor: Warren Simons

Marvel Comics

One more week, one more Initiative tie-in, one more extension to the crossover-that-wouldn't-die, one more super-team, one more #1, one more occasion for tony Stark to guest-star in a Marvel book.

(O.T., but when did Iron-Man out-whore Wolverine? If someone had told me a year ago, that in 2007 we would be seeing Tony Stark in more than 8 titles every month... No matter how thin they spread him, he'll never turn into Batman)

One more Avengers title, but how! With Barry Kitson (LEGION OF SUPERHEROES, EMPIRE) on art duties. With fast-rising Matt Fraction (CASANOVA, LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS, IMMORTAL IRON-FIST). With new characters, with fresh ideas, with attitude.

They could have called them the West Coast Avengers, if the name didn't hold negative connotations with fans. They almost called them the Champions but they weren't counting in the rightful owners of the trademark. The result: the Previews solicitations get a last minute do-over to 'Unnamed Super-hero title', the C crests on the uniform get doodled into Os, and the book is renamed THE ORDER. No, I can't understand the thought process behind this specific choice, while the name Pantheon would have made more sense given the way the team is structured. Regardless, if they had gone with 'Unnamed SuperHero Title' or 'Formerly Advertised as the Champions', they would have caused a biggest stir and attracted more publicity, truth be said.

Following the ending of CIVIL WAR (thank god) Tony Stark is the ultimate fascist, all super-heroes are forced to work for him and SHIELD, and a super-hero team is formed in each American State. Each team reflects the distinct identity of its State, making this specific California-based super-team more akin to a Hollywood production or a soap. Recovering alcoholic super-heroes, handicapped, punks, party animals or high-strung snobs, for fame, for money, for power, for psych therapy. Made in Hollywood of course!

The twist? Noone is safe/irreplaceable. The team is made up of heroes representing the Ancient Greek Pantheon (refer to my earlier comments above) in regards to powers and hierarchy. The heroes are human volunteers (famous or not) who have been in training for months to receive super-powers through a Stark-patented procedure (definitely something mucky at play here) with a Best Before date a year ahead.And if you one of them screws up? He gets fired, loses his powers, sells the rights to his autobiography and is replaced by the next volunteer on the waiting list.

The last fact proves extremely useful in dealing with the necessary tie-in to CIVIL WAR where the team had debuted with a full cast over an opening 3-page salvo. Fraction builds his super-team with the characters that the nice Mr Millar ceded over from his series. Of course by the middle of the issue, Fraction has already disemboweled or fired half of them to replace them with his own creations. Hail!

Who are these heroes? Eh, you can't expect me to remember every one of them. Don't worry though, not even the team's leader remembers them. 'Henry Hellrung can’t even remember our names. What is he gonna do, fire us in the morning?’. Henry Hellrung is the team's Apollo, the big field-leader, a washed-out actor (made famous for portraying tony Stark on the screen) and also Tony's sponsor in the AA. Yeah, it's always who you know that's important to get ahead in the public sector. Henry himself reacts surprised to the offer of leadership: : ‘So here I am. A one-time actor, according to Wikipedia, a full-time drunk as a matter of public record, and the guy that made AA cool in West Hollywood on Friday nights about a hundred years ago. Are you sure you want me to lead your little superhero team?’. He has emotional baggage and we love it, but i be darned if he's not offed within the year.

Acting as the Zeus of the team is Tony Stark himself, while Pepper Potts (Tony's once-upon secretary and former lover) makes for a surprise addition to the roster as the team's Hera, the manager/communications expert. Again, you can't get ahead in the business if you don't put out to the boss. The rest of the cast doesn't get the space to develop here, as the entire issue is devoted to Hellrung (though we figured that out from the credits page, as the story is titled '1.Henry'). Personally, i'm looking forward to discovering more about the team's freak Mulholland Black and the uber-bitch Magdalena/Veda. Still sad to see the chick with the Bluetooth sword (with applications to assist the user during battle both with strategic tips and emotional support) get the boot. Future tech gone bad!

The Order definitely makes an impressive debut, offering a fresh look at super-heroes, especially Marvel ones. Or does it?

Do all this remind us of something?

The title and concept clicked with me from the first instant, and it took me a few more reads to realize the reason. This title stands as a super-smart amalgam of my two all-time favorite superhero team books: X-FORCE/X-STATIX and STRIKEFORCE: MORITURI.

Both comics examined superheroes through the lens of fame; they changed team rosters every few issues, and they both incidentally had an actor who specialized in super-hero characters become a superhero himself (El Guapo and Backhand respectively). From the X-Statix we keep the focus on the showbiz element, the booze and drugs abuse, the press conferences, the marketing terminology, trademarkability as moving force, the surprise full roster change in the debut issue, and ironically even the title change due to copyright reasons (rumored in this case). From Strikeforce Morituri let's stand on the empowering procedure, the use of everyday volunteers and famous people, the one-year limit forced because of the strain of the process on the human body, the training regime, the flying ability for all members and the replacements queue.

The similarities don't mean that Fraction and Kitson have aped the previous titles though, they've used common elements to create a whole new monster, using a distinct storytelling style and pacing that sets them apart. Fraction, perhaps realizing the common elements especially with X-Statix, differentiates the two teams by commenting through one of his characters: ‘the era of glamorous decadence and unchecked indulgence in our superheroes is finished’. My heroes won't be popping pills and get stoned and drunk. Tbh, even if he had kept those elements and had called it O-Force (inside joke alert), I would still be queuing for it.

Unfortunately, contrary to Milligan/Allred's X-Force - which came out in a period when Marvel was focusing on putting out a small number of titles, The Order doesn't benefit from a similar extensive wave of advertising and promotion. Most fans might pass it by as another spin-off title from last summer's blockbuster event, and Comics Journal and Wizard haven't bothered profiling the team's roster and its surprise changes.

Barry Kitson is a perfect fit for the title, similar to the choice of Mike Allred for X-Force. Not for the pop sensitivities in this case, but for the classic colorful spandex approach to character/costume design and the old school influence in the line style. The ultimates-inspired McNiven designs for the opening salvo team look out-of-place next to the next character designs; Kitson himself obviously had a 'tough time' supporting them on the page, slipping into some inferior quality work in the last panels where they turn up.

Matt Fraction hasn't managed to disappoint so far. He won't fall for Marvel's event bullying and achieves to put out a story that is far superior to the title that inspired and launched it. His writing is fueled and colored by self-'certified cool' tag-lines and quotable catchphrases (I couldn't restrain myself and have filled the review with several). Graduate from the Millar and Morisson school in this regard, but more down-to-earth and approachable writing, and amusing. He's writing super-hero comics, not out of a childhood hard-on to work on spider-man, but because they inspire him to make a statement through them and attempt to force the genre transcend itself into something fresh and original.

Grade: 7.5/10

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