Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Youngblood #8

Relaunched yet again, (what is this, the fifth time?) the latest, greatest Team Youngblood is standing on the verge of widespread public acceptance. With a heavyweight PR team, heavy government support and a specially-selected enemy presence delivered right to their front doorstep, all the heroes need to do now is dress up, KO the threat and smile for the cameras. Shame, then, that nothing's ever quite that easy – especially when nobody remembers to tell the bad guy he's supposed to be throwing the fight.

Truth be told, the concept behind Youngblood was never its downfall. In fact, the thought of a federally sponsored team of oblivious superhumans alone inspires countless ready-made storylines from the word go. The trouble has always been Rob Liefeld's writing, which never seemed concerned with that central plot point. He always seemed more interested in one-upping himself in terms of tasteless cliché and horrific dialog than planning any sort of sensible, forward-thinking storylines. Thankfully, this isn't a failure that's mirrored by the book's current writer, Joe Casey.

A handful of redesigned Youngblood originals are still hanging around to tie the team's new adventures in with their old ones; namely Shaft, Badrock and Diehard. They're joined by a troupe of new faces who, while not nearly as well-designed visually, bring a degree of depth and individuality to the squad that was sorely lacking in the past. One of the new characters, Cougar, has the facial features of a hairless house cat but still manages to grow a long, braided goatee. This gives the impression that he's constantly working on swallowing Mario Batali.

Under Casey's careful watch, though, the team has finally blossomed. At its heart this remains an action story, so if you're looking for rocket science prepare to be disappointed, however it's ultimately graduated to something I can read without rolling my eyes every third panel. Casey knows better than to make things too complicated, at least within the team's first story arc, and the end result is a straightforward, exciting throw-down in the heart of a major metropolitan area. The pair of villains he's created to oppose the new team are original (a real feat considering the sheer number of characters already out there) and it's a lot of fun watching the heroes work together to discover the best way to take them down.

It's no longer a prerequisite that you turn off your brain before opening this series, but it still might not hurt. My one gripe is that Casey closely echoes Liefeld's love of celebrity, throwing in a half-dozen cameo appearances by recognizable stars that do more damage than they do good. Really, did this issue need appearances from Oprah Winfrey, Howie Mandel and Ron Burgundy?

Derec Donovan's accompanying artwork is also quite nice, providing the stylistic change of pace the series needed to distance itself from the dark days of the '90s and Liefeld's overdone, confusing visual mess. Donovan's work is restrained and free flowing, casual and inspiring. Where Liefeld's squad consisted of two unique male body types, (one of which was reserved exclusively for Badrock) the book's new artist allows small but important variations from one team member to the next. His action scenes bounce right off the page, but he can still manage a quiet, personal conversation between a poisoned Badrock and his concerned father. Donovan is a nice find and his bouncy, Saturday morning cartoon style is a great match for the sugar-infused storytelling that Casey's brought with him to the title.

But, as if two identical gimmicks by other comics weren't already enough, this month's issue of Youngblood closes with a back-up story that covers the team's meeting with, you guessed it, President Barack Obama - written and illustrated by Liefeld himself. It's terrifying. Six pages of hyperbole, hyperextended lower backs and a curious lack of feet that made me want to cry. This was like going back to the stone ages after catching a glimpse of the airborne highway in Back to the Future II.

Seeing the contrast of the new creative team against the back-up story provided exclusively by Liefeld is incredibly telling. Casey and Donovan have finally delivered the breath of fresh air that the book's creator has been looking for all along, but if next month's solicitations are to be believed, this marks the end of their run. The almighty Liefeld returns to both write and pencil the series with issue #9, and that's sure to kill any traction the new series had developed thus far. It was fun while it lasted. Borrow this one while it's still around, because I fully expect the wings to fall off almost immediately next month.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7

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