"Embedded: Part Eleven"
Writer: Paul Jenkins
Artists: Ramon Bachs (p), John Lucas (i), Larry Molinar (colours)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Front Line abandons the anthology format for its final issue, bringing us one single story: the conclusion of its "Embedded" storyline, which sees intrepid reporters Sally Floyd and Ben Urich given the chance to interview the two figureheads of the Civil War. Writer Paul Jenkins is offered the opportunity to shed some light on both Captain America and Iron Man in the wake of Civil War, and it's a story which has the potential to say something far more meaningful than Mark Millar's rushed finale. Unfortunately, Jenkins doesn't make the best of it, turning what could have been a thoughtful epilogue for the event into a dull recap issue which never achieves any measure of intelligent insight beyond the shallow tabloid-style editorialising of one of its central characters.
One of the reasons that "Embedded" hasn't been as successful as it could have been is surely Jenkins' decision to split his man-on-the-street viewpoint between two very different characters: the established and respected Daily Bugle journalist Ben Urich, and the brash, immature and inept Sally Floyd of The Alternative. Sally Floyd is not a good journalist. Sally Floyd is not half as intelligent as she thinks she is. Sally Floyd is not a likeable human being. Whilst I'm not sure Jenkins intended for her to be any of these things, it makes for a frustrating protagonist, especially when she's called upon to deal with moral and political ideas with any level of complexity. It also makes the dynamic between her and Ben Urich - one of the Marvel Universe's most experienced, competent and respected newsmen - feel completely implausible. Why would Urich, the consummate journalist, stand by whilst Floyd berates Captain America for not knowing what Myspace is, or not following NASCAR, ruining a unique experience to get Cap's side of the story as she talks over him for the second time in the course of this limited series? Why would Urich, the sharp-minded and highly intelligent reporter, stand by as Floyd attacks Tony Stark with snarky comments instead of the more damning and pertinent moral arguments that she has at her disposal? Floyd's criticism of both parties lacks any kind of depth, and the way in which she railroads each conversation makes me wish we could have seen these scenes play out with Urich alone, as it would have offered the opportunity to explore the ideas around Civil War with far more intelligence and maturity. Unless Jenkins is trying to imply some kind of unlikely sexual attraction between Urich and Floyd (it's the only reason I can imagine he'd keep working with her), there's just nothing about the relationship which rings true, and it casts a shadow over the entire story.
Considering that she's meant to be one of the two characters with whom readers identify throughout the series, it's interesting that Jenkins has Sally completely miss the point of Captain America's embodiment of the ideals of the USA. When she tells him that he's not in touch with the real America any more, she's implicitly stating that she thinks that knowing about Paris Hilton or American Idol is important for a hero in Cap's position. I can't decide whether Jenkins has genuinely missed the point of Captain America (which is unlikely), or that he's using Sally's misguided rant to say something about the way in which the Marvel Universe (and perhaps the real world) has changed; that people now celebrate mediocrity and reject idealism; that people no longer want a figurehead with a strong moral character and an unwavering loyalty to his country; and that people ultimately get the cynical and corrupt governments that they deserve. It's food for thought, but it's couched in such terms that the reader has to work pretty hard to find it. Then again, maybe Jenkins has just been asked to toe Marvel's party line that none of the citizens of the Marvel Universe really wanted Captain America's side to win, despite having shown public opinion to be split on more than one occasion.
At least Ramon Bachs' art offers something a little more sophisticated, as he captures Jenkins' characterisation cannily through his art. The disheveled and exhausted Ben Urich, the petulant pouting of Floyd as she asks a beaten Captain America "You've broken [America] - what are you going to do to fix it?," and the mock-Shakespearean tragedy of Tony Stark's final moment of clarity are all carried off neatly by the artist, who proves that even if you can't redeem a poor story through visuals alone, you can at least give it a fighting chance. He'd be well-suited to a street-level (possibly non-superhero) book like The Pulse in the future, as he's got a real knack for rendering realistic environments and expressive characters.
Jenkins might have got some more mileage out of his self-created characters Sally Floyd and the Sentry with this miniseries, but I can't believe that he's happy with the way it turned out. The story feels stretched-out and thin (this eleventh issue was added at the corresponding hour, after all), the reveal of the pro-registration "traitor" is a non-event, Norman Osborn's involvement in the attack on the Atlanteans is unconvincingly explained away, and the book leaves readers with questions (why did Urich leave his job at the Bugle if he's not going to tell his big story anyway? Why is the Sentry only shown to be registering at the very end of the Civil War, when his allegiance has been common knowledge for some time, and Jenkins has already written a story which dealt with it in The Return? What was the point of this book again?). The biggest disappointment of all is that Front Line has been recommissioned for a second series, to run parallel with Marvel's "World War Hulk" event this summer. Whilst completists might have stuck with this book during the Civil War event, its ultimately underwhelming finale seems likely to ensure that readers won't fall for the same trick again. Inconsequential stories, irritating characters, and insight-free storytelling do not a good book make.
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