Sunday Slugfest - ArmorX #1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Michael Deeley, Kelvin Green, Shawn Hill, Shaun Manning, Jason Sacks
"Prom Night"

Keith Dallas

We all know what happened when insecure, nerdy, ridiculed high school brainiac Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider and obtained superpowers: after the avoidable murder of his Uncle Ben, he learned that with great power comes great responsibility. But what would happen though if an ostracized, angry high school loser who’s determined to kill some classmates at his prom came in possession of (or became possessed by) a deadly suit of alien armor? What would happen then?

That’s the premise of the opening issue of Keith Champagne and Andy Smith’s ArmorX. The story’s protagonist Carson Deeds (nick-named “Columbine” by members of his high school football team) skateboards to his prom with a bag full of shotguns and a mental list of classmates he feels “consume too much oxygen.” On his way there, he finds a large metallic ball in the woods that suddenly completely envelops him to form an armored body suit. Some readers/reviewers might find the manner in which Carson happens upon this armor to be too contrived. I’m wondering though if the armor was enticed by Carson’s vindictive emotions and placed itself in Carson’s way. The armor clearly is sentient; it requests Carson to acknowledge certain “truths” about his life, but how much Carson controls the suit and how much it controls him is kept deliberately vague at this point.

And that vagueness is one of the reasons why ArmorX has the potential to be an entertaining story. As the first issue ends with the volcano within Carson about to erupt, I was left questioning where this story was headed. Am I reading a sort of anti-superhero revenge fantasy or a redemptive superhero story where the protagonist experiences a change of heart? Will Carson remain the unlikable, pathetic character he is throughout the first issue or does he transform, progress or mature as a result of the armor? What are the armor’s designs? What does it want?

Again, I am intrigued by where this story will go next, but I feel obligated to stress one point: ArmorX is NOT a serious exploration of high school social dynamics and/or incidents like the shooting at Columbine High School. Andy Smith’s tight artwork and Keith Champagne’s dialogue don’t provide the comic book with grim, naturalistic gravity. ArmorX is a (anti-)superhero narrative, and as such, it is a fantasy. What kind of fantasy it turns out to be is what I’m interested to learn.

Michael Deeley

With 24 pages of story, very little actually happens.

A troubled teen is on his way to shoot his enemies at the high school prom when he stumbles across a weird metal ball. Said ball melts and covers him in liquid metal that turns into a weapon-laden armor. This armor communicates with the teen, telling him it’s okay to beat the crap out of everyone who’s pissed him off. So he does.

Prediction: Armor is part of an alien takeover, and is using the kid to create instability, possibly even kill world leaders, in preparation for its masters. Or armor is just telling the kid what he wants to hear. Or maybe armor needs a purpose to exist. So it feeds the kid’s desire for vengeance, thus making him dependent on the armor.

Frankly, I feel for this kid. No one, and I mean NO ONE likes this guy! He’s angry and pissed off at the world because it’s angry and pissed off at him. Okay, one guy tries to help, but it’s too little too late. What I don’t understand is how they keep laying into him, even after he threatens to kill them. Trust me, you do not want to agitate a walking time bomb. They call him “Columbine,” and forget that event’s biggest lesson: Casual violence is met with final violence.

The art style reminds me of the Ultraverse comics of the 90’s. Sometimes it seems rough around the edges, but it’s good overall. I like the design of the armor, though I’m a little uncomfortable with how the crotch looks. Transitions between past and present, and location to location are handled skillfully. The story is easy to follow and makes sense.

Not a bad start, all in all. I’d rather have seen a complete story as the ending is a serious cliffhanger. I’ll have a stronger opinion after I read the second issue.

Kelvin Green

An important aspect of storytelling, no matter the medium, is pacing. Pacing affects how the story is read at a fundamental panel-to-panel level, and as a whole. You have to make sure that you get it right, otherwise the story can be misunderstood or ruined, no matter how good the art and writing might be.

The creators of ArmorX have got it wrong. I’m sure that this was not intended, and that subsequent issues will clarify things somewhat, but on the basis of this first issue, ArmorX looks like a particularly vile revenge fantasy. What we have here is the story of a high school outsider who plans to go an a shooting spree at his prom, but finds a suit of wondrous sci-fi armour along the way, and so uses that to do the job. School shootings are a strange and tragic phenomena, and I welcome any attempt, in fiction or not, to analyse and understand why they happen, but in my opinion ArmorX fails to do that. Instead, it provides a main character who is either a dangerous lunatic, or is justified in murdering his classmates. Neither is a good basis for what appears to be a superhero series. Superheroes are an exercise in wish-fulfillment, but these are all the wrong kind of wishes.

To be fair, the issue ends before any deaths have actually occurred, and I hope that the creators are going to turn things around in the subsequent issues. In fact, I’m pretty confident that they will, but because of the way the story has been arranged, there’s no indication in this issue that this will be the case. The issue relies on the readers’ faith that the creators aren't seriously damaged individuals, and that’s a dangerous move in the near-puritanical attitude of modern America. Better pacing, with some indication that things aren’t as they seem, would have helped immensely.

What also would have helped is some better characterisation. Everything here seems to be Peter Parker’s situation with more “edge,” but ironically less realism. Stan Lee wrote characters just as cliched as these, but he gave them attributes and characterisation that made them seem real. These characters seem like empty shells clothed in superficialities. The protagonist wears dark clothes and a trenchcoat, and listens to Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. He’s bullied by the football jocks (who, of course, wear their team jackets everywhere) and his own grandfather (who appears to have a drinking problem). They're all ciphers and cliches, the lot of them. Comics historians will note that Flash Thompson (appearing here under a pseudonym) didn't start wearing a team jacket for a number of years.

The art is quite a bit better. The inking has a rough, wobbly look to it that I actually quite like, and the storytelling is pretty good, with only a hint of confusion towards the end, which may even be deliberate given the situation depicted. The figure work is slightly flawed, however, with everyone appearing a good five to ten years too old to be in high school, as well as having physiques more suited to the JLA than teenagers. Facial expressions and body language come across much better, however, and there are some effective moments, especially the looks at the “hero’s” terrified face as the suit does its thing.

This issue seems like a bunch of worn cliches wrapped around a controversial central situation, and it lacks depth. Ironically, what’s been set up here suggests that this could prove to be a very interesting series, but on the other hand, the empty core doesn’t inspire confidence that the creators will be able to go in those interesting directions. So it’s a difficult one to call. Despite a weak first issue, however, I’d suggest giving ArmorX a chance, as two or three issues should make it clear whether there’s any worth to the series. With stronger pacing, that would be clear now, and that’s the book’s central flaw.

Shawn Hill

Plot: After discovering an alien suit of armor, a troubled teen lashes out at his abusers.

What’s interesting: The art is definitely the strong point of this package. Smith achieves echoes, despite some occasional awkwardness, of industry greats Bryan Hitch and George Perez at times in this tale. The ArmorX suit is fascinating, a satisfying mix of sparkly new and old school charming. The storytelling is crisp and clear, with characters clearly delineated, and a generally strong narrative flow. The human body is well portrayed, with only some slight oddities regarding positioning and stiff stances.

Less interesting: The story tackles some very serious subjects, in unsatisfyingly simplistic ways. Our “hero” (though we’ve seen no proof yet that he is such) is introduced to us by the nickname “Columbine,” and he is portrayed as a particularly glum member of the “trenchcoat mafia.” He is taunted in high school halls, so alienated by this treatment that even the helping hand offered by the one non-asshole jock is spurned.

There’s a blind girl that he tutors (so he’s smart, if not nice), whom he hesitantly asks to the dance. She has already secured a date (in a shockingly frank manner), but Whitney still seems to be the only person Carson has any kind feelings for. His home life is just as bleak. There’s a strange abundance of spitting and throwing of fluids onto each other amongst the inmates of this small town.

Smith balances this heavy-handedness with some nice sequences, as in a motif of staring eyes as scene transitions, and expressive and playful panel layout. The plot contrivance of simply stumbling upon his magic new suit, however, is clumsy and can’t be much redeemed by the art.

While I’m not that interested in a nerd fulfilling his will-to-power fantasy and seeking revenge (what is this, The Rage: Carrie 2?), I will add that Smith’s promising art goes a long way towards making this schematic story appealing.

Shaun Manning

From the moment the reader meets Carson Deeds, one can see not all is well with him. Carson’s been kicked to the floor by a high school athlete, who calls him “Columbine.” When another, more Alpha-male athlete comes to his rescue, Carson spits in his face. One day earlier, Carson’s crush breaks his heart by letting him know that not only is she going to the stupid prom, she’s going with somebody else. His fate now sealed by the cruelty of his peers, Carson decides to take action: he’s going to shoot up the dance floor. But why use a shotgun when an infinitely powerful suit of armor equipped with laser cannons has chosen Carson to be its host?

While the superpower aspect of this issue is beyond disappointing (I never cared for X-O Manowar, so have little enthusiasm for his unofficial return), this is undoubtedly the most inspired set of characters to grace a comic book in a long time. The fact that Carson is at the center of the story, rather than somewhere on the periphery as a foil to the hero, is groundbreaking, but add to that well-intentioned bullies and a blind love interest and the book becomes something truly unique.

Unfortunately, it is uncertain if any of these characters will ever have a chance to shine, as the dialogue is atrocious. Outdated or misapplied slang and trite exposition are the order of the day, which is really a shame because the actual situations are dead-on. Perhaps writer Keith Champagne should consider enlisting someone to assist with this aspect of the comic, since this is a book that in many ways deserves attention, and it would be a shame to undercut the remarkable story with shoddy speech. Also, since there is zero chance of this making it into the “all-ages” bracket, it would help credibility to let the characters swear when they want to swear.

Bravo to all involved for tackling such a daring subject–you’ve given a gift to readers that have grown bored of “edgy.”

Jason Sacks

Full disclosure up front: I’m part of a message board with writer Keith Champagne. I don’t think I’m biased in favor of liking his work, but please read this review with that in mind.

ArmorX is a scary comic.

It’s scary because the story’s protagonist, Carson Deeds, is a Columbine shooting waiting to happen. He’s lonely. He’s a brain, left out of the activities of most of his classmates. Lately he’s been talking about bringing a gun to the school prom and getting his revenge on all the kids who put him down. That’s scary enough, but what’s more scary is that Carson is pretty damn unlikable. He’s a jerk, mean to the people who like him and obnoxious to those who hate him. You can see why Carson is out down; hell, it’s easy to want to put the guys down. If you knew him in high school you would have hated him, too. Even when he’s getting his ass kicked, you’re rooting against him.

Then imagine a guy like Carson Deeds getting ahold of a super-suit that’s capable of flying him to the moon and blowing holes through solid rocks. Oh, and he finds the suit accidentally on prom night, after being a victim of violence from one of the high school students who hates him.

Yeah, that’s scary. It creeps the hell out of me.

The smartest aspect of the plot, it seems to me, is the way the story plays out. We first see Carson in the armor, experimenting with its use on the moon. Comics readers are so used to origin stories that we expect the man in the armor to be a hero, to perhaps fly back to earth and stop some bank robbers or drug runners or something. Instead, Carson returns to hurt those who taunted him.

Champagne, Smith and company have so successfully subverted the usual super-hero style that I have no idea what to expect in issue #2. That happens so rarely in comics these days. It’s especially nice for such a cliffhanger to be based more on the characters than the powers. In a sense the armored suit is just an extension of Carson’s angst. Even if he didn’t have the suit, Carson might have done something crazy. With the suit, he now has an excuse to go over the top.

This isn’t the most cheerful comic you’ll ever read, but it’s extremely well done.

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