Writer: Paul Jenkins
Artists: "Embedded": Ramon Bachs (p), John Lucas (i), Laura Martin (colours)
"The Accused": Steve Lieber (p & i), June Chung (colours)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
This issue has generated quite a bit of buzz online, featuring as it does the emergence of Penance, a new "hero" destined to appear in Warren Ellis' forthcoming run on New Thunderbolts, and whose identity had remained a mystery up until now (but I'll get to him in a minute). Aside from that development, I was pleasantly surprised to see the issue concentrate exclusively on the two strongest storylines from what has been at best a patchy anthology title ("Embedded", and "The Accused"), and the absence of any middling supplementary stories such as the Atlantean "Sleeper Cell" or the ill-judged "War Poetry" segments definitely counts in the book's favour.
However, this instalment of "Embedded" feels particularly padded and uneventful, a sentiment which is especially surprising considering the fact that the entire Civil War event is currently reaching its climax. Of course, Front Line was originally solicited as a ten-part series which has now been extended to eleven issues, and that stretching of the material (which has surely been compounded by the continuing delays to the core title, with the final issue having recently been put back yet another month) is keenly felt here.
Last issue's cliffhanger dealt with Tony Stark's revelation that the Pro-Registration factor had a traitor in their midst, heavily implying that the next issue would reveal his or her identity. If this had been the final issue of Front Line, we would have doubtless had some closure on the subject, but in order to maintain reader interest right until the end of the series, writer Paul Jenkins is forced to delay his big reveal until next issue. Sadly, this need to tread water has an adverse effect on other parts of the story; a good example is a scene in which Ben Urich leaves the Bugle as a result of what he and Sally Floyd have discovered about corruption in Tony Stark's faction. The scene shows a strong grasp of the character as a journalist who is guided first and foremost by his moral compass, and there's an equally solid take on J. Jonah Jameson as a man whose bluff and bluster is a fašade behind which hides a very canny and acute newsman. The trouble is, without knowing the identity of the Pro-Registration traitor or the nature of Urich and Floyd's discovery, the pivotal reasons behind Urich's actions remains unclear, and it's difficult to know exactly why he's leaving the Bugle. Sure, we've had many hints about how Tony Stark has made financial gains as a result of the Civil War, but that doesn't seem like the kind of story that Jameson would be wary of taking on. Hopefully things will be clearer once Jenkins has the chance to complete his story next issue, as I can't help but feel that the pacing of the writer's conclusion has been thrown off by greater editorial concerns.
Ramon Bachs' art is serviceable enough for this segment of the book, and he gets a chance to spread his wings a little wider this issue with the superhero Battle Royale which erupts onto the streets of New York at the end of this part of the story. His designs for Ben Urich and Sally Floyd are full of character information and convey a lot about the two journalists without the need for Jenkins to spend too much time defining their personalities in the text. However, I have to say that I prefer the clear, well-defined style of Steve Lieber, who concludes Speedball's story this issue in the final part of "The Accused." His thick linework and strong, clear sense of storytelling provides the requisite darker atmosphere for this pivotal moment in the story of Robbie Baldwin, even if the way the story plays out isn't as satisfying as it could be. Yes, this is the issue in which Speedball becomes Penance, a character who must feel pain in order for his powers to work and who has nothing left in the world to drive him but feelings over the Stamford Incident, and I can't help but feel that it could have been done better.
It's easy to see with hindsight how the groundwork for this reveal has been laid throughout the series, with Speedball's journey mirroring that of Spider-Man's, although it's far harder to understand why Robbie has suddenly flipped over to the Pro-Registration side than it is to sympathise with Peter Parker's choices. Is Baldwin's agreement to register symptomatic of his remorse over what happened at Stamford? He certainly doesn't show any in his callous treatment of a bereaved father in his prison cell. Has he suddenly developed masochistic tendencies as a result of his treatment in prison? If so, it's an element of the story which could have been made clearer. That said, he's a character who has nothing to lose, has reached rock bottom, and is feeling generally wretched about his involvement in the incident which kicked off the whole Civil War event, and despite being a little extreme for a character who was historically so light and airy, that should be a pretty good starting point to create some good, old-fashioned comicbook melodrama.
Sadly, the visual execution of the character completely over-eggs the pudding, coming off as akin to something Todd McFarlane might have seen in a nightmare after playing too much Soul Calibur. The idea of a costume which is specifically designed to punish the wearer by inflicting pain is quite a novel one, and allows Robbie Baldwin's mental self-flagellation to be demonstrated in a visceral, visual way. However, the external spikes and armour appear to serve no function other than to look "cool" and the expressionless mask reinforces the blandness of yet another "tortured" character who doesn't yet have enough of a clearly defined motivation to make him truly interesting; he might as well have remained in the black hoodie and jeans that he began the issue wearing, as it's just as simple a shorthand for the kind of character that Speedball seems to be being shaped into. When Robbie states that "the perfect irony of [his] situation could not have been scripted any better", I'm sure a few eyebrows were raised on the faces of readers across the land. Whilst "Penance" might have once been a germ of a good idea, the way in which it has been handled has led to it feeling like a bit of a letdown. It's still not clear what this transformation actually achieves for the character, and doubtless a lot of the gaps have been left intentionally, to give Warren Ellis some leeway in defining him in his Thunderbolts appearances, but this leaves his story in Front Line feeling somewhat incomplete, which is bound to be galling for readers who have stuck with it for ten issues.
Although flawed, this issue of Front Line is still an improvement over much of the rest of the series, but that's damning the issue with faint praise. Those who have followed the book this far are unlikely to give up on it now, and there might still be an opportunity for Paul Jenkins to pull something out of the bag to redeem the book in the final issue, but right now it's looking like yet another example of a crossover tie-in book which exists to move playing pieces around without actually standing as a good enough story in its own right. The success of Penance will rest on how he is used in Thunderbolts, and the importance of Urich and Floyd's revelation will likely remain only a footnote in Mark Millar's greater Civil War story. There's nothing here to really mark it out as essential reading, and with reader enthusiasm for the big crossover event reflected in the core book's falling sales figures, Front Line is unlikely to go down as a particularly memorable series, and that's a shame, as the promised "man on the street" perspective on Civil War held a lot of untapped potential.
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