Editor's Note: Dark Reign: Zodiac #1 arrives in stores tomorrow, June 24.
"For the Sake of Mischief"
I'm not very interested in Marvel's current overarching plot involving the bad guys being in charge, but given the right creative team, I can be convinced to sample at least a part of anything. And luckily, Joe Casey is a writer that can come up with some cool concepts and clever dialogue in any situation, so he's a good choice to throw into one of these offshoot miniseries and see what happens. And when he's joined by such a delightfully idiosyncratic artist as Nathan Fox (Pigeons from Hell, DMZ), you know you're in for something unique. And that's exactly what we get with this comic, which introduces a mystery villain who not wanting to fall in line with Norman Osborn and his evil pals, kicks off a scheme of mayhem and violence, with a mysterious goal in mind.
Casey starts off with a shock to the system, signaling that this is going to be a nasty story, full of sex and violence; I suppose if you're going to put the bad guys in charge, you should expect some awful stuff to happen. In the first scene, our man Zodiac (whose identity is a mystery; he simply wears a suit and tie with a sack over his head) murders a large group of H.A.M.M.E.R. agents gruesomely, while quizzing them as to what H.A.M.M.E.R. stands for, anyway (his best guess is "How All Maniacal Mandates Engender Retribution"). It's pretty horrific; Fox depicts the pools of blood and dangling entrails as a chaotic mess of grossness. The rest of the issue continues in kind, with Zodiac putting together a team that includes a tattooed, pierced girl named Nekra, a drunken clown from the Circus of Crime, and a bruiser named Manslaughter Marsdale; all locations seem littered with grime and filth, and any chance for more dirt and blood is jumped on with gusto. It's a pretty ugly story, and intentionally so.
Casey is definitely going for style here, with his characters talking in a clever patois and gleefully committing acts of depravity, but since he's mostly introducing characters and setting up the situation, the heavy lifting is done by Fox, who gives the underbelly of the Marvel universe a dirty texture, full of little details and nifty designs; his flying cars seem so much cooler than the generic airships that S.H.I.E.L.D./H.A.M.M.E.R. guys are always puttering around in. He does action really well too; a climactic fight between Zodiac and the Human Torch is hard-hitting and as violent as the rest of the book, full of neat artistic flourishes. And special attention should be paid to Jose Villarubia, who lays some excellent colors over the top Fox's pencils to perfectly suit the mood; the splotchy reds of the prominent blood-splatters are especially nice-looking (although that's probably not the best way to describe them).
It's probably not a comic for everybody; the violence is some of the most extreme you're going to see in superhero books, outside of mature readers titles. But if you can handle the viscera, Joe Casey is using the occasion to go all out with the transgression, and Nathan Fox is matching him step for step. I might be the only audience for something like this, but that's fine with me.
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