Saturday, April 27, 2013

Danger Club - Series Review

It was over a year ago that I wrote a bullet review for Danger Club #1, the Image mini-series by Supergirl Cosmic Adventures creative team of writer Landry Walker and artist Eric Jones. At that time I praised the gritty nature of the series, the interesting hook that it had of a world's sidekicks dealing with the annihilation of their mentors at the hand of some unknown menace.

Unfortunately due to some delays and emergencies, Danger Club #5 just came out this month, about half a year after Danger Club #4 was put on the shelves. It had been months since I picked an issue of the book and without much thought I read Danger Club #5 cold. Something clicked in that issue ... something brilliant and glossed over the first time I read the earlier issues ... something that made me re-think everything that I had thought about the book. Instead of bagging the issue and throwing it into the long box, I instead grabbed the other issues of the title and read them all in one sitting, including rereading the fifth issue.

What initially seemed like a grimmer and more violent look at sidekick archetypes (Kid Vigilante for Robin, Apollo for Superboy, Jack Fearless as Bucky) has become something more complex, deeper. This isn't just a Teen Titan version of Straczynski's Supreme Power.

With the book turned on its head a bit, with some fantastic character revelations revealed, with a great cliffhanger ending reminiscent of a classic mini-series, I decided it would be worth bullet reviewing the entire series hoping I will convince some of you to find the issues and partake of the goodness. As this is a review of the first five issues, this is a long post. Since I don't post on Sundays, you'll have 2 days to read this. Sorry for my wordiness.

One of the charms of the series has been these retro-opening pages, drawn and colored like they are ripped from the Silver Age. Each page adds something to the story, giving slight insight into some crucial part of the story. For instance, in this one from the first issue we learn that Apollo is vulnerable to moon metal.

But as I would read these, I wondered exactly why Walker and Jones would choose to use this style as a way to clue us in to the plot points. Why Silver Age style pages? And did these stories happen in the past? How could these stories happen in the blood-soaked world we are otherwise being shown?

And it is a blood-drenched and dark world. The heroes of the world have all perished in some cosmic brawl leaving the sidekicks in charge. In something like a super-powered Lord of the Flies, most of the young heroes fall in line behind the extremely powerful and narcissistic Apollo.There is even a sort of Hunger Games arena set up, games for Apollo to witness.

Kid Vigilante is truly the Robin/Batman character of the book. The self-proclaimed smartest boy on the planet decides he needs to take matters into his own hands. Flanked by the other members of the Danger Club and armed with moon metal knuckles, he bashes Apollo to a pulp. It just has that "Kryptonite Ring" feel to it.

In dramatic fashion, Vigilante tells the other sidekicks. that the danger from space is coming. The sidekicks who followed Apollo can help, stay out of the way, or get taken out.

At the time, I thought this was a great premise for a book. What happens when the sidekicks become the upper echelon? What lines will be crossed?

But then the second issue happens. And we suddenly see that the plot isn't going to be that easy. It isn't just going to be Kid Vigilante whipping the frothing young heroes in line to face off against Galactus.

The book opens up with a flash forward of Jack Fearless shooting Vigilante in the head at close range, a shower of brain and blood exploding from Vigilante's skull. That seems so out of place for your standard Crisis story. But before you can process it, we flip back in time to the end of issue #1 again. We get to see what Vigilante is planning.

In a great scene, we see some cracks in the emotional armor of Kid Vigilante. Almost everywhere in the book he is the steely immutable hero. But here, his ex-super-villain girlfriend with him, he returns to the 'Bat-Cave' equivalent. But in this world, it isn't costumes in tubes to help commemorate fallen heroes. It is the actual heroes. Vigilante's brother, Kid Victory, weakened by a neurological disorder, is alive in stasis in a tube. This isn't a heroic death or an assassination by a super-villain. It's just life that has taken him out.

With the world on the brink, Vigilante pulls the plug on his brother and breaks down. This is the only time you see just how much being the cold-hearted hero must weigh on someone.

But as I said, things aren't always what they seem. And I suppose the opening to Danger Club #2 should have told me that this wasn't going to be a straightforward narrative.

We learn at the end of the second issue what Red Vengeance (Kid Vigilante's mentor) saw right before he died. It is implied that it wasn't some cosmic threat.

And then in Danger Club #3 we learn just who the villain is. The President of the United States, the former Captain America-like American Spirit, shows his true colors. A sidekick named Moonlight shows up to inform him about Kid Vigilante's plans. Spirit kills Moonlight, cackling about it was he, the American Spirit, who killed the heroes ... not some cosmic entity. So now we know that ... and we assume Vigilante knows it too!

Now that revelation is a nice twist and would probably be a good enough left turn plot-wise to jkeep me happy as a reader.

But what bothers me is that on first reading I sort of blew right by this line. The Spirit remembers everything that has ever happened and everything that no longer happened. There is something even more about this plot than simply a good hero turned bad.

Maybe it didn't sink in because Walker and Jones continue to show me just how depressing and dark this world is. Remember, these heroes are basically kids.

Jack Fearless takes some of the 'Danger Club Reserves' on a side mission to investigate a super-villain lair. There, they are psionically attacked, forced to face their inner most fears. This school age hero, Gravity Girl, is so overwhelmed by her reality and the attack that she kills herself.

It once again shows us how horrific this place has become, a stark contrast to this almost-sweet retro opening pages. That dichotomy (along with the Spirit's words) should have bothered me more, should have made me think more about what is happening here.

So in three issues we have had three very good plot twists - dead heroes to main hero being killed in the future to the heroic President being the villain.

But we still aren't done.

Not so much a plot twist but more like a mysterious pause happens in Danger Club #4. Armed with the knowledge that the American Spirit is behind everything, Kid Vigilante develops an intricate and possibly deadly plan to set things right. We aren't told what the specifics are but the inherent danger is felt.

Last issue, we saw Kid Vigilante return to Apollo, still weakened but regenerating, and grabs some of Apollo's blood. Even here, Apollo says 'no matter how many times you kill me, you can't escape Hades'. Is Apollo just talking about these two beatings? Or has this scene replayed itself? Is Apollo aware of time repeating itself?

The Magician inoculates himself with the blood and enters some sort of spell world, flying through 'bubbles' which show again scenes we have seen from the earlier issues as well as some scenes we haven't seen yet. Crawling through the memories, the Magician finally finds one of the heroes just prior to their deaths and seems to absorb them into his wand. He then mutters the word Apocatostasis.

So what is that all about? I have some ideas below.

Finally, the latest issue came out last week.

The cover is a brilliant use of negative space showing Jack Fearless' eye patch alone near a blood streak. You know something bad is about to happen.

Now Fearless is interesting in that his character has evolved over the book. At first I thought he was a sort of Kid Nick Fury, with eye patch and cigar. In the second issue, we see him equipped with robot arms and we see him listening to the President right before killing Kid Vigilante. So then I thought he was a sort of Bucky equivalent. Then we saw the eyepatch actually covers a robot eye. And now in this issue, we see even more evolution to his character.

But finally, finally the light switch turned on in my head. This issue's retro page shows the American Spirit fighting a villain humorously named Dr. Tik-Tok. The Spirit fought someone with a time machine! Suddenly remembering 'everything that has happened and hasn't happened' makes much more sense. The Spirit has been abusing time, changing things, keeping himself in power while changing history.

Suddenly everything takes on a different light.

Maybe these retro pages did 'happen'. Maybe this simpler life was the reality on that planet until the Spirit changed things. Maybe everything that we have seen has happened before innumerable times but with subtle changes. These no longer become interesting opening pages to help move the plot ... they become apocrypha for a time that never was.

And it makes the Magician's trip through memories and time even more important. Was he gathering moments in time to save them, remove them from the timeline, make them 'permanent'?

Last issue we saw Kid Vigilante reveal his plan to Jack Fearless. And we saw Fearless, shaken by the suicide of Gravity Girl, question the sanity of the world, the feasibility of the plan. Fearless seems to betray the Danger Club, bringing in Kid Vigilante.

And then, before the world, we see Fearless shoot Vigilante ... the scene we were shown 3 issues ago. Time, such a key part of this book, has caught up.

Somehow I get the feeling that this murder of Vigilante is actually part of his plan.

Because shortly after that killing, Fearless attacks his old mentor. I love how the Spirit says he knows the truth about Fearless, a truth we learn throughout the battle. Despite appearing weak, the President easily defeats Fearless, ripping off his arms and then showing us that Fearless is, in fact, a brain and single eye in a robot body, a truth hinted at in this issue's retro page.

Fearless has completely evolved ... or de-evolved ... over the course of the book. He isn't at all what I thought he was physically in the first issue. He has gone from Nick Fury to Bucky to Robotman! Can you be a 'teen sidekick' if you are a brain encased in a robot? Can the brain of someone who was a kid in the 40s fighting Nazis still be a 'teen'?

And finally the President reveals his plot. The time machine from Dr. Tik-Tok is the ultimate weapon allowing the Spirit to change the world over and over to favor his rise to power, his immortality.

I probably should have sussed this out earlier. But when I am surprised, or when surprises are slowly hinted at before the big reveal, it thrills me as a seasoned reader.

But what of Vigilante's plan? What about the Magician and 'apocatostasis'?

Well, the Spirit engages the machine again, this time to create a 'new beginning'. The end of this issue reminded me immediately of the last issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths #4, a slow erosion and whiteout of the panels as things are erased completely, the destruction of the universe.

Except the Danger Club members remember what 'he' (I assume Vigilante) told them to do. They all say 'apocatostasis' while the universe unravels. I have to figure that somehow that word seals them off from the universal changes, a stasis state during the apocalypse, a way to still be around to try to fight the Spirit again.

But more than that, I have to go back to the Magician absorbing the older heroes while in the time stream. Those heroes have to return again, brought back to fight the Spirit at the beginning of time maybe? Could it be that they all fight and die in a battle against the Spirit, somehow fulfilling the phony story of them dying while staving off a cosmic threat? Will the world return to that Silver Age simplicity but with these rugged and damaged sidekicks still around, remembering the trauma of their world while living in Pleasantville? Is Vigilante dead, a sacrifice made to keep his plans on track? How many times have these scenes replayed themselves as a new history unfolds?

And does the fact that time can be so fluidly changed make the events of the earlier issues sort of moot? Why do I feel I need to reread the issues again? And isn't that the mark of a great book ... the desire to reread??

It seems as if Walker and Jones have created a much more intricate tapestry of a story than simply bloody fights between sidekicks. And here is the kicker ... there are three more issues! There have been insane twists and turns here and we are just over the halfway mark!

This is a far cry from Supergirl:Cosmic Adventures in the Eighth Grade. But it is tremendous. Sincere kudos to the creative team. These issues are well worth finding, buying, reading, and re-reading. The first issue is available digitally for free here.

Overall grade: A


Saranga said...

I LOVED this last issue. It is comics on a grand cosmic, world altering scale. I was absolutley delighteda nd enthralled when I read it.

Thank for writing the recap!

Anonymous said...

I plan to re-read the first five issues, this is truly superlative work from Walker in every way with the feel of a great novel in the making. I hope he gets a chance to tell the story properly.