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Tuesday Slugfest: Stan Lee's Soldier Zero

Posted: Tuesday, October 19, 2010
By: Jason Sacks

Paul Cornell
Javier Pina (with Alfred Rockefeller, colors)
BOOM! Studios
When an alien parasite falls to Earth, wheelchair-bound college student Stewart Trauttmann becomes infected and goes through super-human changes that no mortal could imagine. Forced into a galactic war that's chosen Earth as the battlefield, Stewart defends the front line as Stan Lee's Soldier Zero!

Justin Carmona:
Dave Wallace:
Jason Sacks:

Justin Carmona:

In This Issue: What happens when you mix the concept of Tony Stark's armor, Peter Parker's wit and charm with a disability not at all like Matt Murdock's, but one just as challenging, while adding a tiny dash of Steve Rogers in for good measure? You get Stan "The Man" Lee's latest creation, Soldier Zero.

This first issue introduces us to former U.S. Army Captain Stewart Trautmann, an Afghanistan War veteran who was crippled out in the battlefield while serving his country. The wheelchair bound Trautmann is now back at home and working for the Astrophysics department of the local university, all the while coping with his new physical challenge. Things take a surprising turn however when Stewart is bonded with an alien armor that is known only as Soldier Zero.

The Good: Stan Lee is best known for creating the core Marvel Universe and many of its flawed heroes, and with Soldier Zero he does no less. And writer Paul Cornell really knows how to make these characters likable. Instead of shooting for the obvious with a brooding pessimistic Trautmann, Cornell writes the book's lead character as someone who is very at peace with himself. Now mind you, that doesn't mean Stewart doesn't go through the normal frustrations that comes with being in his type of situation, but almost all of it stems from the way people are treating him. But despite all this, it doesn't stop Stewart from moving on with his life and going after the girl he wants. Enter the likeable and down to earth, Lily.

I love that Stewart's given a romantic interest who likes him for who he is despite where he's at. One of the best scenes in the book is when Lily and Stewart share a very open and honest conversation where we learn how he was injured in Afghanistan. And artist Javier Pina really captures the sincerity of the scene that Cornell has laid out for us.

In fact, Pina is almost perfect for this book. He really knows how to render facial expressions giving us very human characters. Pina also delivers some very explosive battle scenes with the Soldier Zero armor and really nails the Afghan flash back. And the armor's design, which is by Dave Johnson, works really well.

The Bad: Remember how I said Pina is almost perfect for this book? Well, despite his stellar work, I just didn't care for his interpretation of the Soldier Zero armor itself. Every time Soldier Zero made an appearance in the book, I just couldn't help but feel like I was looking at an unfinished drawing of the character. For a really solid design by Johnson, Pina's work on the armor was just a little too open for my taste.

And while Cornell really gives us some really likable characters and the story is well paced, I feel like I've read this type of book before. X-O Manowar comes to mind, which is one of the best in the "human with alien armor" genre. But since this only the first issue, I remain hopeful that the book will cover some new ground as the series progresses.

The Bottom Line: While Soldier Zero may not be the most original comic book on the stands, there is still enough good work here to recommend. So, hit up your local comic shop, pick up a copy, and see how the Soldier Zero armor fits you.

Dave Wallace:

This first issue of Soldier Zero sets up two separate story strands. The first is the existence of an intergalactic superhero, the mantle of which is apparently handed on from one person to another--a little like one of the most famous "legacy" heroes, Green Lantern. The second is the character of Stewart Trautmann, a wheelchair-bound veteran of the war in Afghanistan who's just starting out in a relationship with a new girlfriend.

It doesn't take Nostradamus to work out how these two storylines are going to intersect--especially when the title is the brainchild of that unparalleled creator of classic superhero concepts, Stan Lee--but much of the first issue is taken up with gradually moving the pieces into place so that Trautmann can become Soldier Zero, meaning there isn't much suspense to speak of.

That said, there is some good character work done here by writer Paul Cornell, especially in the first half of the book. Trautmann's experiences as a wheelchair user are written in quite an authentic-feeling and sympathetic manner, with the character seeking to play down his condition and live as normal a life as possible, rather than making his disability define him. Having said that, he's given some fun foils to play off that force him to acknowledge his condition (such as his encounter with a militant defender of the rights of the disabled, or his frustration with the well-meaning but ultimately patronising ways in which people try to 'help' him throughout his day), and there's an interesting subplot about him becoming an anti-war protester as a result of his accident that isn't really fleshed out yet.

Trautmann's romance with Lily is also handled reasonably well. The conversation Lily has with her friend about Trautmann's disability rings true, as does her awkwardness in bringing the subject up with him when the pair finally meet.

However, it's around this point in the book that things begin to feel a little more conventional and contrived. A misunderstanding over the location of a party might be an effective way to separate Stewart and Lily from the rest of their group, but it just doesn't feel plausible (would you really tell someone to meet you on top of the tallest building in a given area if there are two buildings of almost equal height right next to each other?). And when the arrival of Soldier Zero finally occurs, it's about as predictable and conventional a superhero sequence as you can imagine, ending the book on a cliffhanger that feels a bit flat--because frankly, we've seen scenes like this play out a thousand times before in superhero books.

Javier Pina's artwork is clear and pretty consistent throughout, with bold character designs and vivid colours that feel as though they hark back to a more innocent age of superhero comics. However, the visuals sometimes seem a little flat and lacking in detail, as though either the penciller or his colourist Alfred Rockefeller could have done more to add depth to the scene. It's perfectly serviceable stuff, and tells Cornell's story without any problems, but at the same time it's not artwork that left a particular impression on me either.

Whilst I enjoyed this issue and I'll be interested to check out the second chapter of Soldier Zero to see how things progress, I have to admit that I'm currently more invested in the exploration of Trautmann's attitude to his disability and his relationship with Lily than I am with the superhero stuff. Hopefully Cornell will do more in issue #2 to distinguish Soldier Zero as an original superhero concept, because aside from offering Trautmann the mobility that he lost as a result of his accident--which admittedly might add a fairly interesting angle to the story--I didn't find anything in the issue's more superhero-oriented pages to really capture my interest.

Jason Sacks:

This comic is way better than I expected it would be.

I was a bit pessimistic about reading a new title conceived by Stan Lee. His early 2000s series Just Imagine was a painfully boring slog that showed Stan to be a man whose best days were behind him. The books in this series were the worst of all possible worlds: they were neither modern-feeling nor nostalgic.

But Soldier Zero doesn't have those weaknesses. In fact, what makes this new comic so entertaining for me is that it has a very contemporary feeling.

Soldier Zero is the first super-hero that I know about whose origin is deeply embedded in America's contemporary wars. Protagonist Stewart Trautmann lost the use of his legs in an IED during the war in Afghanistan and has returned to the United States. He's working at a university but is having trouble moving past the trauma he went through. People treat him weirdly, he's lost some of the high self esteem that he obviously had, and even his brother treats him a little bit like a freak.

All Stewart wants is to be treated like everybody else, but instead he's stuck dealing with people who stare at him, and treat him like a freak. Even Stewart's encounter with a wheelchair-bound woman in this issue is surreal and depressing.

I really enjoyed this take on our hero. Stewart has a lot of strong qualities to go along with his frustrations. He seems an admirable man, stuck in circumstances that he has no way of changing. This gives his character an interesting level of depth and makes him an easy character for a reader to embrace.

The beauty of it is that Trautmann seems like a classic Stan Lee hero, just updated to the year 2010. Stewart isn't all that different from Matt Murdock. Murdock is a really good man whose powers allow him to work past his disabilities, and Trautmann looks like he will be similar to Matt Murdock in temprament. This is a classic comic book template, created here by Stan Lee, a master of comic book templates.

I was less excited by the way that Trautmann gets his powers. The origin seems a very familiar story basically Trautmann receives his abilities in the same way that Green Lantern received his. Maybe there will be more of a twist to this element of the plot in future issues, but so far that piece seems overly familiar.

Of course, Stan Lee didn't actually write this issue, which may be I regret to say part of why I liked this comic so much. I'm sorry to say that because I love Stan, but we all know he often had a bit of a huckster side to him that feels corny and old-fashioned these days.

But Stan's just created here as being the "Grand Poobah", and the actual writing in this comic is done by Paul Cornell, whose writing has received very positive reviews right on this very site see our most recent Sunday Slugfest for examples of that. Cornell writes this comic in his usual light, graceful and thoughtful style. His characters feel realistic.

Cornell especially does a good job of never letting the reader get depressed or frustrated because of Trautmann's injuries. He manages to portray Stewart as a happy man with lots of reason to feel optimistic about his life while also presenting his world in a realistic manner. That balance had to be hard to achieve, but he does it well.

Javier Pina's art was just perfect for this comic. Anybody who's familiar with his work on Manhunter knows that Pina is really good at depicting real-world characters interacting in realistic ways. He does an especially nice job of showing a pretty intense conversation between Stewart and his potential girlfriend Lily. Dialogue-based scenes can be boring, but Pina does a great job of keeping the scene fresh and interesting, by using clever page layouts and smart character depictions.

Soldier Zero, despite being created by an 88-year-old man, feels as fresh as yesterday's headlines and as real as the injuries that you might see in a VA hospital. Cornell and Pina create a really intriguing first issue. Hopefully future issues will keep a balance between the heroic action and Stewart's very interesting real life.

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