Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Gabriele Dell’otto
Luke Cage is attacked with Jessica Jones in his apartment. As S.H.I.E.L.D. are alerted, we learn that this may be part of a larger picture, involving espionage, terrorism and the underbelly of international politics. Nick Fury faces an uphill struggle against an American government for which catching the bad guy doesn't seem to be top of the agenda, but may live to regret his acts of rebellion...
Beautiful. That’s my first impression of this classily painted new miniseries. I’ve often been of the mind that painted comics sap much of the dynamism and attractive simplicity from the superhero genre (for a recent case in point see the current Wolverine & Captain America miniseries). However, the work on display here from Gabriele Dell’otto has successfully challenged these preconceptions – and then some. Here, he follows in the recent footsteps of David Mack – an artist credited by Bendis in his introduction with Dell’otto’s discovery - in applying his talents to an out-and-out superhero comic. However, whereas Mack was crippled by his Echo miniseries' rescheduling and insertion into the main Daredevil title, finding himself less appreciated by that more mainstream audience, this quarterly title will have time and space to breathe and will hopefully find the more discerning readership it deserves.
As you’d expect from a Bendis comic, ostentatious writing also plays a large part here. People often link Bendis' style with realistic dialogue, but it's a claim which is not altogether true. Rather, there's a sense of the same super-stylised "real" writing we've seen in so many of his other comics, with recurring tics and familiar minor characters: We see the recurrent double-act of a back-and-forth between two smart-arse interrogating agents; much repeating and overlapping dialogue; and a favourite Bendis pursuit of pulling out lesser Marvel characters, treating them with the small amount of respect they deserve and having no qualms about dispatching with them quickly. Whilst these devices all work well, a longtime Bendis fan may experience some deja vu and a feeling that some new tricks may be needed before the style becomes stale.
Plot-wise, the issue is a good opener, providing us with enough meat in the story to get us interested without giving too much away. It remains to be seen how effective this pacing will be in a quarterly series, but there is enough happening here to move the story on considerably more than most Bendis single issues manage. The finesse with which the writing handles time-switching story strands and multiple characters is testament to the writer's experience, and it is a pleasant surprise that overtly political questions are put forward, the story concerning as it does the underhand machinations of a US administration with its own agenda. It's always a good thing when fantasy stories can ground themselves in some sort of recognisable reality and it's a good idea to let this militarily-concerned title explore these political ideas in greater depth and in a less black-and-white way than usual.
Another great idea, and one that goes some way to justifying the high price of this issue, is the inclusion of additional material at the back of the comic. Among these ‘special features’ are some outstanding Gabriele Dell’otto pinups and a word from Bendis - a simple pleasantry but one that is much appreciated and adds a real personal touch to the book. We also get an extended “transcript” of a conversation between S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and the villain Jason Macendale, perhaps a natural progression for a writer who is so closely associated with wordiness and a mastery of written conversation. Instead of coming off as a vanity exercise, this “extract” serves to add further depth to the relationships in the story, providing interesting background information that clicks with some of the plot points in this first issue, and again manages a sly dig at American military policy – witness Nick Fury’s abundant deletions and omissions, censorship of any possible anti-American criticism.
Despite the price, this is obviously a quality product and one which looks to be setting a high standard for itself. If it can live up to the promise of this opener, we can look forward to it as an enjoyable and different miniseries that can stimulate our mind at the same time as it amazes our eye. Even if we do have to wait three months between issues.
I’d challenge anyone not to be attracted by this artwork which alone would be enough to sell the first issue of this book. However, it’s also nice to see Bendis’ subversive and political sensibilities rise to the fore after a more muted showing in Ultimate Six. Hopefully – with the advantage of a more mature storyline and intended readership – this element will remain centre stage, paving the way for an outstanding fusion of good writing and great art.
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