Back in 2001 when this series first started coming out, it must have seemed new, exciting, and revolutionary, full of detailed, hyper-realistic art, large-scale action, anti-American politics, and what must have seemed like bold new ideas for superheroics. Unfortunately, now that itís been collected at the end of the decade, itís less fresh, following similar books like The Authority, The Ultimates, and Black Summer, to name a few. But itís definitely not without merit; writer Rob Williams had some big ideas, and the art of Trevor Hairsine and Travel Foreman (both of whom have since gone on to work for Marvel Comics) is stylish and dynamic, certainly worthy of attention.
If anything, the fault of the bookís plotline is that it doesnít go big enough, which is odd to say for a comic that includes an assault on the President, multiple gory murders, superheroic military action, and semi-genocidal acts by a major government. But it still feels smaller-than-life somehow, as if the discoveries prompting the bookís conflict arenít enough to cause all the resulting chaos. Perhaps Williamsí outsider view of American politics (heís British, as is the bookís publisher) limited his understanding of the nuances of the countryís political system, or maybe thereís just a fundamental disconnect between the garish simplicity of superheroic conflicts and the complex workings of real-world governments and societies.
But weíre getting ahead of ourselves, so letís back up and look at what actually happens in the series. The comic jumps straight into conflict when a Superman-like superhero named American, the leader of a super-team called Enola Gay (which is itself a bizarre moniker; itís hard to believe that even the most cynical political operatives would name any part of the military structure after one of the worst tragedies it ever perpetrated, whether one thinks it was necessary or not), learns the truth about his career fighting for the United States military, and takes drastic action to broadcast his findings to the country and personally reprimand the President by heat-vision-branding the word ďLIARĒ onto his forehead. The big secret: the government was lying to him, and his and his teammatesí actions were all basically in service of drug-trading corporations that were intent on making sure the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. Thatís kind of a broad revelation, along the lines of the sort of conspiracy theories you would hear from a cable news talking head shouting that the government is hiding terrible secrets and perpetrating war crimes. Itís a simplistic reduction of any corruption that might actually be taking place in the government, and while Williamsí apparent hope that the American people might rise up against their government when given such revelations is nice, it does seem that real life has proved him wrong over the past decade.
Of course, maybe he was already cynical about such positive movement even back in 2001, since the hoped-for revolution doesnít happen in the comic either; the President faces some political difficulties and some of his underlings have to resign, but he seems to weather the storm. But while he does get his moments (and it must be noted that even though he certainly seems familiarly Texan, Williams conceived him before George W. Bush ever took office, according to his introduction), the real focus of the plot is on American and his conflict with the other superheroes, who are now tasked with hunting him down. And so the politics take a backseat to action, although a major plot point does involve the United States invading the fictional Caribbean country of Glenada, supposedly to quell an attempted revolution, but really to distract from the political scandal.
So, we follow American as he fights with his former comrades, ends up in Glenada trying to defend American troops from being massacred, and falls into a trap that results in the aforementioned genocide. Itís pretty exciting stuff, with some action that is so well done that one forgets about the iffy plot and glories in the well-rendered destruction. We also get a few other subplots, the main one seeing the creation of a new super-being in a government research facility go horribly awry. And then the volume ends, seemingly in the middle of the story. The six issues which were produced come to a sort of stopping point, but nearly everything is left unresolved; perhaps Williams and company will return to the book and finish it at some point, but until that happens, readers are left hanging unceremoniously here.
But they can certainly enjoy what they do see, especially the exciting, detailed artwork. The first half of the book is illustrated by Trevor Hairsine, who would go on to provide the art on comics like Ultimate Nightmare, X-Men: Deadly Genesis, and Wisdom, and itís obvious why Marvel wanted him in their stable of artists. Heís working in the ultra-realistic Bryan Hitch style here, cramming tons of detail onto the page but still making the action easy to follow, even when itís big and hard-hitting. Itís impressive work, especially in the characters, which seem modeled on real people rather than abstract cartoon characters, yet still fit within the world of the comic. There are some really nice moments and images here as well, with an image of the nasty flame-powered hero Burner preparing to incinerate somebody by thrusting an upraised, flaming middle finger directly at the reader being a standout, and the sweaty, chubby, one-eyed visage of a disgraced CIA operative who gets forced to help American being another.
And then, halfway through the book, the art changes abruptly to that of Travel Foreman, who has more of an exaggerated, slightly cartoony style, although one thatís no less dynamic and exciting. Itís somewhat jarring, considering that the large, muscular hero Heavyweight is suddenly depicted as being twice the size of the other heroes, and Icon, the female version of American that Hairsine depicted wearing a somewhat realistic full-body leotard, suddenly seems to be clothed only in body paint that clings so tightly to her breasts and buttocks and reveals her protruding nipples that she might as well be naked. But while the changes in character designs takes some getting used to, the action gets even better, especially as the scale of the conflict ramps up to an absurd degree. Foreman treats the reader to beautiful double-page spreads of things like American tearing the wings off fighter jets in midair, or going crazy and toppling an aircraft carrier. Itís gorgeous work, full of a unique style and still propelling the action and story forward in an easy-to-follow manner.
Yes, itís exciting, fast-moving, visceral artwork, and thatís what really sells the story and makes it enjoyable. But even though the overall plot doesnít quite seem up to snuff, and Williams does throw in some stylistic tics that seem to have fallen out of favor over the past few years, like omniscient narration that informs readers of the thoughts going through charactersí heads which also combat with internal narrative captions from multiple characters, he puts plenty of personality into the book as well, delivering several indelible moments and characters. The President, who could just be a one-note doofus, seems a bit more like an overconfident man caught in a conflict thatís over his head, but still so excited by power that he pleasures himself in the Oval Office. Others include a former Nazi scientist who tries to deny his terrible past before giving in to guilt; the grotesque creation of said scientist, who doesnít get a chance to really make an impact in this volume but does promise to be a good antagonist for any future stories; or Heavyweight, an escapee from the ghetto who has trouble letting go of his roots.
So itís not a perfect book by any means, and it does seem to be both a product of its time and a bit ahead of the curve (even if weíre finally seeing it after that curve has passed), but itís got some nice ideas and incredible visuals, and the promise of more to come at some point. But even if that second volume never appears, this one contains material thatís worth reading, if only to get a glimpse of the time when this sort of politically-aware, supposedly-realistic superhero story was new and fresh. And hopefully Hairsine and Foreman will get a chance to match their work here someday; that possibility on its own is enough reason to beg for a follow-up. In the meantime, Iíll spend hours studying globalization and macroeconomics so I can respond to said sequel with a well-rounded online riposte. Comics fans can be globally aware too, right?
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