Sudden Comic Death Syndrome looks back on comics cancelled long before their time.
It seems like most Marvel Comics creators have way more fun on the fringe. Look at Fraction, whose irresistible adult political manga approach to Invincible Iron Man still feels pretty suit-and-tie compared to the frenetic Punisher War Journal and the kung fu dollar bills collectively titled Immortal Iron Fist. Secret Avengers will really be the test for Remender, but before that he was doing Doctor Voodoo comics and turning the Punisher into a Frankenstein. And Joe Casey? He wrote some lovely pseudo-mainstream Marvel Comics retro miniseries, but read Dark Reign: Zodiac or Vengeance and feast your eyes upon the writing of a man whose brain might be literally on fire.
Which isn't to say that any of these guys "sold out" by doing high-profile Marvel work; it just seems like there's a little more creative freedom and freewheelin' comicking when you're not handling properties that are going to become movies and cartoons.
Before he was the guy the cretins on the message boards are surely accusing of "ruining X-Men" (I didn't verify this, as CBR's message boards are scientifically proven to contain carcinogens) Kieron Gillen was "the Phonogram guy," responsible for one of my favorite modern indie comics, and who, as recently as two years ago, was still dipping his toes into mainstream work for Marvel with contributions to anthology titles, miniseries about Beta Ray Bill and a newuniversal one-shot. 2009 was shaping up to be his big break, getting an ongoing series in the form of S.W.O.R.D.
Joss Whedon introduced the Sentiend World Observation and Response Department in his Astonishing X-Men run, a cousin of S.H.I.E.L.D. dealing exclusively in extraterrestrial matters as they relate to the Earth's general well-being, run by a green-haired half-alien named Abigail Brand. It's a concept too good to leave as some throwaway plot device in the confines of some X-Men comics, knowing that in the Marvel Universe there are people in a pointy space station keeping the world from being invaded on the regular. So, a couple years later it finally got an series devoted to it, and they got the Phonogram guy and the dude who drew The Five Fists of Science to make it, which, it turns out, was the best decision.
Sword #1 is as great a debut for a series as there's ever been, as Gillen and Steven Sanders, in the span of 22 pages, introduce and develop everything that would make up the entire series — Brand's antagonistic relationship with the villainous Henry Peter Gyrich, the X-Men's Beast as the patient boyfriend, Death's Head chasing after Brand's fuckup half-brother, the creepily friendly robot in their space-basement, Gyrich's evil plan to rid the earth of all extraterrestrials, a blueberry muffin, the alien Drenx who prove to be the other villains of the story arc aaaand Lockheed the dragon. Plus, there's room for jokes and witty banter and a Jamie McKelvie-illustrated backup story that addresses some Whedon Astonishing X-Men fallout. And it never feels cluttered or too dense thanks to its perfect pacing and sense of humor. It is a great comic book.
Each following issue is just as effective, both as single issue and a continuation of the overarching story. Issue #2 mostly focuses Brand and Beast dealing with the Death's Head situation while Gyrich makes his power move. Issue #3 is all about the takeover of The Peak and our heroes' escape. Issue #3 has Brand and Beast dealing with an invasion of rock creatures on Earth while the Drenx make their power move. Then, in #5 everyone fights and plots are tied up! All of which is conveyed with the same skill as the first issue, juggling multiple narrative threads and developing them as needed by issue.
That's how you make a comic book, folks. It's something I recently wrote about in my column, and how I like to write multipart stories myself. Never does S.W.O.R.D. feel like reading four pages stretched out to fives times that length. Kieron Gillen knew his series couldn't afford to dilly dally or deliver an entire issue that exclusively served as set-up for the next major plot point; he had to tell his story, tell it well and entertain the reader in the process.
It bears repeating: I love how Kieron Gillen handles the subplots in this series. Everyone has something to do, a reason for doing it and everyone gets a reasonable amount of screen time (page time?) to develop their plots, all of which ultimately figure into the overall story. Lockheed's hanging around the Peak, possibly on a bender because he wants S.W.O.R.D. to locate Kitty Pryde. Beast wants to hang out with/help his girlfriend. Unit is essentially a cosmic bomb waiting to go off, but a very, very patient one who likes to play strategically. Gyrich is an asshole.
It's proper writing, the kind you see on a television show like Breaking Bad (I've been marathoning the latest season) where, even if you don't immediately understand why a character is doing something, you can interpret and figure out just what's motivating them, and every character adds to the narrative tapestry of the story in a signifcant way. Compare that to a sound and fury kind of comic like Justice League, which I cannot understand on a character basis — like, at all.
Illustrating the whole series is the aforementioned Steven Sanders. Not only does his animated (maybe even anime?) style fit the relatively lighthearted tone Gillen sets, but he can handle seemingly anything Gillen throws at him — big superheroic fights, weird aliens, dragons getting drunk. A lot of people at the time complained about his rendition of Beast and his elongated snout, but that's stupid. Anyway, Sanders' linework only got better as the series goes on — more confident and energetic and overall fun to look at.
Sadly, S.W.O.R.D. was canceled after five issues, which isn't a total surprise considering how mainstream comics work. As great as it is, S.W.O.R.D. has way too much going against it in the "being marketable to the average comic book reader" department — it takes place in space, has weird/clever things in it, stars non-marquee characters and features an overall unconventional style. Maybe a "From the pages of Astonishing X-Men!" tagline was in order. After all, when the series was collected in trade it was retitled X-Men: S.W.O.R.D.: No Time to Breathe.
It was disheartening losing S.W.O.R.D. so early to low sales and seeming lack of interest, but at least it wasn't the end for our creators. After S.W.O.R.D., Kieron Gillen eventually became a major talent at Marvel, taking the reigns of Uncanny X-Men from Matt Fraction and nabbing Thor/Journey into Mystery after J. Michael Straczynski left the book. Steven Sanders has devoted his time to indie work including, among other things, Our Love is Real, a comic that envisions a free love future where it's legal to fuck a dog. Not gonna lie — that's kind of worth the stone cold bummer of losing S.W.O.R.D.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine (drawn by Eric Zawadzski) will debut in Spring 2012.