Reviewing this comic is a little bit like reviewing the second episode of a four-episode Doctor Who story featuring Tom Baker. The chapter is just one segment of a longer storyline and not quite substantial enough to review on its own. But at the same time it’s an interesting enough work on its own to merit its own review.
Like a middle chapter of a Doctor Who story, this chapter of the Next Men saga is the middle part of the story. It’s like the part of the story in which the Doctor has landed on an alien planet and sussed out the fact that there are two groups at war with each other. You know he’ll probably jump to supporting one side over another, but you’re not quite sure how he’ll get there.
It’s a similar story with John Byrne’s Next Men. Part one of this serial set the story in motion in this comic, and a weird and baffling first chapter it was. The first issue of this series reminded me of why I’ve lost my love for John Byrne’s work over the years, as it alternated between being confusing, dull and too weird to be enjoyed.
But this second issue, especially taken on its own as a standalone comic, is really very entertaining. Byrne’s moved away from the central conceit of the first issue, which featured a kind of dreams within dreams storyline that I found frustrating. I had trouble investing in characters who seemed completely without grounding, and for whom reality kept changing. If reality was always changing, what was there for me to grab onto as a reader?
But JBNM #2 is a whole different story. It features the stories of three of the Next Men, who are timelost in different eras in American history. Rather than being stuck in a world in which we wondered what was real and what was fake, these characters are in worlds that we as readers understand very well.
I have to admit right here that I don’t really know anything about these characters. I haven’t really read this comic before so I don’t know who these people are, what their powers are, what made them the way they were, or anything else. But thankfully this story works just fine without my knowing that. Then again, I also didn’t have to know who the Doctor and Sarah Jane were in order to enjoy “The Dawn of the Daleks.”
The most compelling story of a timelost character is that of a woman who looks like she’s of mixed-race descent. The woman ends up in the south in pre-Civil War times, where she’s whipped, enslaved and brought face to face with the absolute evils of slavery.
It’s interesting how we see the character’s degradation as she struggles to reconcile her complacent 2011 era attitude with the casual and vicious racism of the time that she ends up in. She begins to come to life as a three-dimensional character right in front of the readers’ eyes as the story proceeds. Her disbelief in the things that she confronts is compelling, made more so by the fact that that we see that she’s become a hero in an alternative future.
The second timelost character is a man with giant, strange eyes who finds himself in the middle of Germany during World War II. He has lost his memory and wanders through the war as a true naïf, bouncing between American and German troops. This segment of the story gives Byrne a chance to deliver his most creative art and storytelling in the issue, with a terrific wordless segment that is more horrifying for its lack of words.
The man is brought to a German concentration camp, where he’s brought before the Nazi scientist who’s performing horrible experiments on the Jews in the camps. It’s a horrific place to be brought, but that setting only accentuates the horror that he will face.
The third timelost character is a beautiful, sword-wielding woman named Jasmine who finds herself stuck in the Elizabethan era in England where she meets Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford – whom some suspect as the man who wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
Only a few pages are devoted to Jasmine’s section of the story in this issue, but her setting is intriguing (will she become an analogue for a famous Shakespearean female?) and the artwork in this section of the story seems well-researched and appropriately ornate.
In fact, Byrne seems inspired by the chance to draw things that have a basis in reality. He draws really nice-looking horses in the early part of the issue, and brings the squalid reality of life in the South to life with a real sense of realism. He also draws Germany during wartime in a way that accentuates the horror and danger present everywhere in that ravaged country.
The only real complaint I have about this issue is that it was missing a clear explanation of who these characters are. I wanted to read more about them in the synopsis at the beginning of the issue, but instead I was pretty much left to my own devices. But that lack of information helped rather than hurt my enjoyment of the issue; the fact that these three characters were a tabula rasa to me made their plights more interesting. I brought no baggage to their stories, so I got to live in the same metaphorical moments that they were living in.
Sometimes the middle chapters of Doctor Who serials were much better than the beginning or ending chapters. All that running around through tunnels was a heck of a lot of fun, which I often didn’t want to see end. I had a heck of a lot of fun with this middle chapter. I hope the ending is as good as the ending of “Dawn of the Daleks.”