When last I reviewed this title, I said the following: "Weston’s realism and Straczynski’s nuanced character work are both perfect for figuring out just how these outmoded concepts might update themselves (or fail in doing so) for a new age, and The Twelve continues to intrigue as it tracks their various cultural shocks step by misstep."
That was in 2008, and I've changed my tune since then. I don't think this comic has been about all these lost Captain America relics finding their way in the modern world. JMS and Weston have both worked hard to make each of them distinct individuals, and the fact is, it wasn't like they fit in so well back in 1942 either. That they've been on ice for 60 years isn't the most relevant fact about the Twelve. What's important is that their particular problems, issues and foibles were merely put on hold by the evil Nazi scientists back in the day, and they've all still got their personal hurdles to face. Some of them have been making better headway than others, as is only natural, but all of them are misfits of one kind or another.
Does it matter that there were no issues at all for three years, a maddeningly long gap between #8 and #9? I don't think so — not much, anyway. Not since we still have Straczynski and Weston on the final issues, which read pretty seamlessly with the rest. (The gap is not even strictly true, as Weston came out with "The Spearhead" in 2010 just to whet our appetites for the eventual continuation of the story, folding in a welcome appearance by the period Captain America). Similar delays didn't hurt Avengers: Children's Crusade, or The Ultimates, because in those cases, the combined collection still read just fine (as this one will).
What's happened in these final four issues is what had to happen, what's been promised all along: denouements, climaxes, sudden reveals and mysteries solved. JMS has spent each issue chronicling personal quirks of character in turn and in great detail, his heavy verbiage partnered ably by Weston's detail-ridden pencils. We’ve come to know these time-lost individuals gradually, and to find that they're still human. For the most part, anyway. They may have feet of clay, but they're not psychotic losers, either. That would be too simple. The story JMS was spinning was actually quite complex, which is why we got only one or two full backstory flashbacks per issue. These character profiles needed to fit in logically with the rest of the unfolding action, and the series was quite well-paced.
I admit, my main reason for this retrospective look is the chance to show the big surprise climax. To the extent that this shocking revelation made even a ripple on the blogosphere, some found it either a shark-jumping moment or at least a drastic change from what went before. The underlying dread of this whole series for some was that JMS would do to these bygone heroes what Moore almost did to the Charlton stable: revel in their horrific inadequacies, making fun of the Timely, pulpy stars with modern, jaded eyes.
But it's clear that's not all he's done, for example when you take a character like Black Widow, who was already the literal femme fatale in her earliest incarnation, a vengeful woman who made a deal with a devil. By the finale of this series, she's not only become a hero. She also reveals a softer side, responding to an ally who reaches out to her with love. She's a woman of wisdom and insight who acts on her own moral imperatives. It helps that she only punishes the wicked, and it's clear that her Goth trappings and her spooky powers will forever weird people out. But dark (and even cursed) needn't mean evil, and JMS finds similar nuances in the rest of his cast.
By the end of the series, the fates of the Twelve are uneven and not analogous. Each is instead personalized and specific, defined by character. Some adapt to the times. Some already seem to fit in. Some transform themselves, and others are tragically unable to.
All these beats answer expectations from the basic concept of the series. They've all been building to the big climax, but major moments happen in each of the final four issues. In #9 the Blue Blade is killed by Electro (as promised by the first issue), in yet another inexplicable act from this enigmatic robot that isn't supposed to have an operator who's still alive. His spectrally blank visor-shield has been a haunting motif throughout the series, a "who's watching" question that has more than one answer by the end. Whenever he finally springs into action, it's still a shock.
The Twelve #10 is mind-blowing, as Dynamic Man's racism and homophobia grows ever clearer the more the Phantom Reporter harangues him about his origin. Yes, it's a classic Agatha Christie moment, all the suspects gathered as the plot is slowly unfolded, but I bet Agatha never saw this coming:
Rather than break with the rest of the series, this moment defines it. In that reveal we have every aspect of the heroic dream Dynamic Man wants to believe about himself. It's the dream we have when we pick up a comic, one that was even more seductive back during the Timely past. What the Twelve reveals is that such dreams were always simplistic whitewashing, the passionate desires for moral clarity and superiority of a child playing with toys.
Dynamic Man's artificiality is the man behind the curtain, the shining god who was much too good to be true. His refusal to adapt (and his great power) means he must die, as the rest of the heroes realize the only way to continue the good fight is not to turn the clock back, but to move forward with the rest of the world.
In #11 we have a war among gods, a
Ragnarok of the Twelve teaming up to take down their own strongest member. He stays three steps ahead of them in both strength and strategy for as long as he can, but could Superman really take down the whole Justice League? Not when Batman, Wonder Woman and the Manhunter are around, and the out-of-date android isn't really as smart as Clark.
In #12, the denouement, we get the aftermath, the winding down and wrapping up that serves as a fitting finale to the lives lost over the course of the series. But we also get something else, something unexpected. When a few of the surviving members reunite under the auspices of Master Mind Excello, whose perpetual arched brows make him look dramatic and exotically "foreign," we get a new agency ready to act in the modern world.
It's significant that JMS waits until the final issue to give us Excello's back story, which is one of special gifts used for selfish financial gain, until a crisis forces him to make a heroic act he never thought he had in him. He's been more or less off-stage or in the background for most of the series, his mental powers threatened by the information overload and higher population density of the modern world. But by the end he's finally had time to gather his resources, and his new EXC Corporation is rather like what the Watchmen (a book similar to, but not imitated by, this one) might have been had their genius financial backer not have been the manipulative Ozymandias.
Appearances are very important to this book, so it's significant that Excello is more Eastern European in appearance than the traditional Aryan embodied by the android. The photogenic sun god was the worst of them all, while Weston took pains to build the rest of his cast with varied ethnic traits. Mr. E and the Witness are Jewish (the first balding under his hat, the second resembling more and more a very angry Leonardo DiCaprio by the final issue). The Reporter and Captain Wonder and Fiery Mask are all gingers (the Captain with hairy legs that always seem queasily exposed by his skimpy super-Speedos); the Laughing Mask is not that handsome underneath it; the Blue Blade is all Hollywood surface, while the Widow is a haunted film noir siren.
The police that investigate them, the military men who fund them, the estranged family members who visit, and the denizens of the gay bar too are all unique individuals, each one give distinctive identity by Weston's endless invention. He's the closest the comic world has to a documentarian. The world of the Twelve feels a little outside of traditional Marvel territory, but it's a fully realized one that ends with the hint of stories left to be told. In JMS' work, it stands alongside Supreme Power as an exploration of fantastic heroes interacting with a believable world, but fitting perhaps their origins in a more innocent time (and the smaller scale of their power set), the tone is much more hopeful.
After to getting to know the cast so well, it's good to leave them with that feeling of hope. The Widow and the Fiery Reporter look great in their new leathers, having formed a Batman/Robin or Nightwing/Flamebird style crime-fighting duo. The Witness is hired by Nick Fury to do what he always did (only now for S.H.I.E.L.D.), and the Laughing Mask has been given the still functional Electro to fight with military sanction. His mask now covers that blank visor, giving the robot an identity at last. If all isn't exactly right with the world, these timelost heroes have at least made themselves a part of it again.
Shawn Hill knows two things: comics and art history. Find his art at Cornekopia.net.