Thursday, May 3, 2012

On the relaunch of two disparate universes

Valiant was a powerful and creative company in the 90's, spearheaded by Jim Shooter, who engineered a comeback on par with Elvis in vegas and Mel Brooks on Broadway.  Using the heroes from Western Publishing as a base asset, he rebuilt them from scratch, added in brand new characters, and did what hadn't been done successfully in a couple decades - presented a brand new comics universe that actually caught on, and how.

Sadly, the boardroom brawls were as over the top as the action on the page - Jim was squeezed out of his own company, many creators followed (and many didn't), the books went through massive changes in dorection, and the company made a subtle shift to more gimmicky covers and insane print runs, being partially responsible for the downfal of the industry in the mid 90's.  The characters changed hands, went through another couple of revamps, and ultimately withered and died, remaining only fond memories in the minds of the fans.

Some years back there was quite a frooferau as two separate companies attempted to buy (and in some cases, just sieze as salvage) the copyrights and trademarks of the Valiant Universe.  Valiant fandom broke into camps, and the message boards glowed white-hot with anger and vitriol.  One company emerged triumphant, while the other vanished, and we never even got to know who owned them (thought there were one or two Clever Theories).  The smart money was that since this new company only had access to the new characters, and not the ones from Western, their success would be a long shot indeed.

In the years between, we got a reprint or two, Jim Shooter became connected with the company for a very short time, but went off to Dark Horse to write new versions of the Western characters again. (Like so many things involving Jim, there are conflicting stories as to the details)  Ultimately, it seemed like we'd never see anything come of this, and we'd gotten all excited over nothing.

Confounding expectations, annoucements were made that first issues of the new Valiant universe would appear this spring, starting with X-O Manowar.  That issue came out yesterday.

I can honestly say that this new Valiant has surprised the industry in the same way the original did, presenting solid and impressive storytelling, putting the cynics in their place.

Special Guest Norbert
by Mike Leeke
  The original X-O started in the middle, with your only knowledge that this Aric guy was a barbarian, had been kidnapped by aliens, and gets ahold of their most powerful weapon.  Here, writer Robert Venditti scrolls back a bit - we see Aric of Dacia in battle with the Romans, we meet his family, we learn a great deal more about him.  He's brash, headstrong, and impulsive, even for a Visigoth.  When he hears about a new "transport" that the Romans have brought in, he investigates.  Of course it's not the Romans, but an alien spacecraft, aliens who promptly apprehend him and his men and bring them aboard.  He escapes his captors, and while searching around the ship, observe a ceremony where the aliens are trying to find a worthy bearer of what will eventually be known as the X-O armor.

That's right, an entire issue of action, solid character work, and we don't even see him get the armor.  No worries about people screaming GTtFM here - there's more than enough going on, without a shread of decompressed narrative.  In a very interesting plot seed, we see that the aliens are sneaking into the Visigoth camp, kidnapping children, and leaving changelings - alien babies transformed to appear human.  It's a fascinating expansion of the original Three-Thousand Year War with the Spider-aliens in the original books - surely we'll be seeing the fruits of that plan when we hit modern day.  One wonders if those alien genes might be responsible for the powers of people known as Harbingers, the next title to come down the pike in a week or two.

It's a fabulous take on the character, giving him more of a personality than he had before and rounding him out as a character.  Setting the Spider-Aliens up as the bad guy straight away also helps set the groundwork for the other books.  When Shadowman came out in the original run, you needed a nudge to "get" that these were the same aliens Aric was fighting 1500 years before,
Cary Nord's art is a delight - clean and uncluttered, no exaggerated anatomy, and solid storytelling.  Indeed, also very similar to the art style of the original books.

One book in, and I am SOLD.  I was hopeful as the news began to trickle out, the decision to make Archer & Armstrong one of the launch title had me thinking they had their head on straight, but this book has me over the moon. 

Over at DC, James Robnison and Nicola Scott have launched Earth-2, the DCnU version of the parallel Earth that got the whole Multiverse mishegas going in the first place.  From the first announcement of the changes to the DCU, the thing that tugged the most heartstrings was the seeming loss of the JSA.  It's not the first time we lost them, and there was a general hope/belief that they'd be back in some way or another.

Almost immediately the evidence began to mount.  Karen Starr (Power Girl's secret identity) was to be a regular character in the Mister Teriffic comic, another character associated with the JSA.  Less than a month or two after the DCnU started, DC announced that we'd see Earth-2 back.  Soon we found out that The Huntress, Paul Levitz' character, who had just got her own mnui-series, was in fact not Helena Bertinelli, but Helen Wayne, daughter of the Batman of Earth-2.  Many fans squeed.

James Robinson has played the details of the book close to the vest.  I noted that he referred to the Earth-2 heroes by their regular names, and not their super-hero names.  I noticed that there were no details of the time-frame of the world's history - how similar was this world to the original Earth-2?

None at all, it turns out.

Extra Special
Guest Norbert by
Dale Eaglesham
 As with the Earth of the DCnU, we're seeing the birth of a new breed of heroes, ones with the same names as the golden age ones, but getting their powers in the present day.  The story starts the same five years ago that JLA did - Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (who on this earth have clearly been fighting crime for many years) are fighting an invasion from Apokalips.  They defeat the invasion, but at the cost of their own lives.  During and after the fight, we meet Alan Scott, Al Pratt and Jay Garrick, and see how they were involved with the battle.  Al was a sargeant in the army, Alan a communications mogul, and Jay was just getting out of college.  And in case it's not clear, they're not all 87 years old.  These are yuoung and vital people, who have a big adventure aherad of them.

Now we're seeing this new band of heroes got their powers, supposedly to fight some massive threat yet to come.  Jay will apparently get his speedster powers directly from the god Mercury, finally making that helmet make sense. 

So, I'm in yet another situation where the book is exactly nothing of what I hoped for.  Now I could be short-sighted, pout, and drop the book back on the rack.  But I've already said how much I enjoy the work of James Robinson, and here he comes up roses.  The book is VERY heavily character oriented.  Nobody balls up their fists and screams "JUSTICE!" so that ought to please everybody.  The battle is related in an exciting fashion, and the people we meet afterwards come off as three-domensional characters.  Nicola Scott has made a big jump in her art - her character work was always beautiful, but the detail in the backgrounds on the page are real impressive. 

This is a very different Earth-2, and as with the DCnU, if you're able to get past the fact that these are literally not the characters you grew up with, you're in for a very fun time.  If you can't get past that, I wish you well reading your reprints, but I'm looking forward.

It's interesting how in both of these new books' cases, different tactics were taken. Valiant it very much sticking to the original concepts of the characters, and just retelling the stories with an exciting new energy,  while keeping the feel of the original books.  DC is pretty much jettisoning everything save for the names of the characters, and doing brand new stories.  In both cases, there's no knowing what's coming next, and both approaches can be successful.  And I hope they both are.

1 comment:

  1. If Archer & Armstrong make a comeback I, for one, will be happy.