24 July 2006

REVIEW: Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters #1

A city devastated by metahumans. Political intrigue and post-9/11 fear-mongering. Heroes pitted against the government and each other, forced to choose between wildly uneven sides.

Marvel's Civil War?

No, actually, it's DC's Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters #1, "from the pages of Brave New World" and spinning out of the events of the Battle for Blüdhaven! So, did writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray pinch Mark Millar's notes, or vice versa? Or, have the Big Two simply hit the inevitable bottom of the "big idea" barrel and are now scraping up similar muck from its depths?

Whatever the reason, credit Palmiotti and Gray for doing more with less -- Battle for Blüdhaven excepted, as I only quickly flipped through the last issue to see where Uncle Sam was coming from -- if for no other reason than their use of less-familiar characters requires them to actually dig a little deeper in telling their story, offering solid characterization and plotting where Millar opts for lazy "F*@% Yeah Moments" designed solely to titillate the fanboys, while leaving the real storytelling to the likes of Fabian Nicieza (Thunderbolts), Peter David (X-Factor) and David Hine (Civil War: X-Men).

It's an election year in the DC Universe and Senator Knight, Phantom Lady's father, is on the Presidential campaign trail, proclaiming the dangers of unregulated metahuman activity and the sacrifices required for freedom. Palmiotti and Gray offer a jarring juxtaposition as agents of S.H.A.D.E. ("Super Human Advanced Defense Executive, the final solution to unsolvable problems") violently and decisively take out an Intergang drug runner during his five-year-old son's birthday party. The two scenes hit a note of comic book "realism" that Lex Luthor as President and Wonder Woman's snapping Max Lord's neck couldn't, primarily because we don't really know these characters as well and, unlike most of the major spandex icons, their actions make sense in context.

The first issue puts a lot of meat on the table, setting multiple sub-plots in motion while offering brief but effective glimpses into several of the primary characters' heads. Doll Man -- a miniature, flesh-and-blood G.I. Joe with a license to kill -- and the much-maligned Phantom Lady -- Jenna Bush with super powers and triple-Ds -- get a couple of nice, humanizing moments, and have the inside track on being my favorite characters. A humorous scene featuring the Human Bomb serves as a perfect metaphor for the two sides of the story's underlying premise, while also illustrating the fledgling team's dynamics and chain of command.

S.H.A.D.E. architect and commander Father Time is exactly what Civil War is missing, a more believable representation of a government that views metahumans as a potential terrorist threat and is willing to "do whatever is necessary to protect our freedom." He completely crosses the line in the name of of the greater good, and it works because there's no meta-thinking about Life Model Decoys or clones or mind control or whatever deus ex machina Millar's going to have to pull out to make his story work.

Visually, Daniel Acuña's artwork is extremely hit and miss, as if he cherry-picked his favorite scenes to spend the most time on while whipping out the rest at double-time speed. The whole is greater than the sum of its unequal parts, though, as his style is distinctive and appealing, and Javi Montes' coloring is a nice complement. Hopefully he's way ahead of schedule as it would be disappointing to see a fill-in artist (or a delay) on this eight-issue mini-series.

Civil War is pure spandex fan-on-fan service; no foreplay, no kiss, no dinner and a movie...barely an exchange of names before "wham, bam...you have to go before my mom gets home." If you feel cheap afterwards, it's your own fault because you knew what kind of comic book it was when you picked it up.

Uncle Sam, on the other hand, just might be the one your parents warned you about. All candy and roses and promises in the beginning, it's probably going to break your heart because, in the end, all superhero comics are alike. It's how they treat you before it's over that counts, though, and Uncle Sam is starting off with all the right moves. Maybe this time it'll be different?

Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters #1, by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Daniel Acuña (DC Comics, July 2006; $2.99)

NOTE: Uncle Sam, like several other recent DC comics, bears the annoying little disclaimer, "Based on ideas and concepts developed by Grant Morrison." That he rates such prominent credit for remixing other people's creations while Will Eisner, Lou Fine, Arthur Peddy, Paul Gustavson, Len Wein and Dick Dillin all go uncredited is reprehensible.