Monday, November 24, 2008

Black Terror #1

Earlier this year, famed creator Alex Ross teamed with Dynamite Entertainment to produce Project Superpowers, a limited series that focused on a handful of characters from the '30s and '40s. Originally promoted by a variety of now-defunct publishers during the golden age, much of the title's cast had faded into obscurity within the public domain, and Ross took the opportunity to rejuvenate them. Now, following the success of that original series, the title's creative team has come together again to launch a series of individual titles focused on Superpowers's inhabitants, the first of which lands this month in the form of Black Terror #1.

Alex Ross and Jim Krueger share the writing credits, collaborating on the plot while Krueger tackles the script alone. Naturally, Ross is the big selling point so he takes top billing. Black Terror artist Mike Lilly also takes a back seat to the famed creator, who's credited for “artistic direction” in stark contrast to Lilly's "interior art." So... was he just painting by the numbers, then?

For what it's worth, though, the Kingdom Come veteran does seem to have delivered the most successful pieces of this pie. Black Terror's character designs, clearly based on a set of classics, benefit from the light touch but sharp eye seen in Ross's redesigns. Its premise, a set of forgotten heroes who return to an America that's vastly different from the one they left behind fifty years ago, provides a fine commentary on just how much things have changed here since World War II. If that sounds an awful lot like Marvel's recent mini-series, The Twelve, that's because superficially they're almost identical. But where J. Michael Straczynski's Twelve initially embrace the government in their ignorance, Ross's heroes remain skeptical and choose to observe from the sidelines before jumping in. While the two stories share a similar setup and a commonly jaded outlook, as their events play out they seem less and less alike.

Ross's collaborators don't fare as well. Jim Krueger's script is excessively wordy and tough to work through. I can deal with one or two long-winded, robotic personalities at a time, but when the issue is bursting at the seams with them, it gets to be too much to handle. While this mini-series may be titled after a single character, it's very much a team book, but no one character stands out as identifiable. They're all just stale shades of the same tone, sharing a penchant for out-of-place film references and sudden, action-halting monologues. Mike Lilly's artwork does more with Ross's influence than Krueger's writing, but even the visuals are generally cluttered, murky and difficult to navigate. Lilly shows some promise in a few spots this month, but ultimately he succumbs to the strain of trying to tell three issues' worth of story within the confines of a single chapter. He never gets a chance to slow down and breathe, finally buckling under the pressure.

Black Terror #1 had all the ingredients to become something interesting. Its heart was in the right place, I loved the concept of reintroducing such a classic cast of forgotten heroes, and while I've seen more anti-government slants in comics since the mid '80s than I can count, this take on that old concept managed to be both original and compelling. But somewhere in between the imaginary world of concept and the physical land of realization, the series faltered. The artwork is too dense and rich for its own good, and I rolled my eyes so frequently at the book's awkward prose that I felt dizzy when I reached the last page. With a good editor, a tighter vision and a more cohesive creative team, the book could turn a sharp 180, but I'm not holding my breath. Until it can get its act together, you're better off flipping through and leaving it on the shelf.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4

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