This issue turns down the gore yet paradoxically ups the action, as we get a more traditional quest story (with an actual hero) than we've had thus far in this revival of one of Byrne's best creator-owned projects.
Next Men was always a harsh playground in which Byrne tried out some of his more radical ideas, a mix of superheroics and sci-fi that set our ostensible heroes up as pawns in games they only barely understood. Throw in time travel and Byrne's history fetish, and you have successions of either dream sequences or doomsday scenarios, a tactic that kept readers of the initial run of the title on the edge of their seats, usually. Only uber-villain Sathanas was all too predictable, and usually best kept well off-screen.
He was clearly influenced by Byrne's long working history with Doctor Doom, with a little Immortus and Kang and Dracula thrown in for good measure. But more interesting was the cast of supers, who may have borne a passing resemblance to the X-Men, but were Byrne's own toys he could do whatever he wanted to.
That creative freedom has become ever more apparent in this third volume, where Byrne has subjected his crew to tortures ranging from sensory deprivation to eye gouging to hobbling to rape and murder threats. He's also divided the team, sending each of them into different eras. We know not why and nor do they.
Impervious Bethany is having the future culture shock trip, Nathan is having a concentration camp nightmare and Jack is doing the "gentle giant/former brute tamed by God" spiritual routine. But secret agent and team handler Tony Murcheson may have had the arguably rawest deal of all: for several issues she's been living the worst nightmare of an African-American, waking up in the slavery era in the Deep South. The things she endured were hard to watch, as Byrne dramatized the inhumanity of viewing a race of people as animals without dignity, and surely would have broken the spirit of someone other than our stalwart and dedicated action star Tony (who never met a gun she wasn't ready to wield).
This issue she finally makes her escape, and her flight from the South to the North both alludes to the legend of Harriet Tubman and sees Tony dealing with her horrid dilemma with clever resourcefulness. Her history is good enough to know that the Civil War is nearly at its end, which gives her an edge on the soldiers she encounters, and that leaves her with one very clear goal: stopping the impending Lincoln assassination.
Wishy-washy is not in Murcheson's lexicon; it's not for her to quibble over the moral implications of altering history. She sees a wrong she thinks she has a chance to right, and she sets about doing it with steely determination. Even if it takes her to the White House itself. Of course, altering fate and destiny may be a bigger challenge than she anticipated.
In addition to the thrill of such welcome plot developments, Byrne also turns in one of his best art efforts yet on the series. His weakness since he began inking his own work has been maintaining the clarity and detail of his pencils, but from the cover with its realistic likenesses to the interior art in the many locales along Toni's journey, lack of detail is not a problem.
Next issue's sneak preview indicates a partial reunion of the team, so I'm taking it as a sign that Byrne has worked the torture porn out of his system and is ready to share the heroics with the rest of his cast. That's a good reward for sticking with what has already become some of his most evocative storytelling in years.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Ray Tate also reviewed Next Men #6. Read his thoughts, too!
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