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War Heroes #1

Posted: Monday, July 21, 2008
By: David Wallace

Mark Millar
Tony Harris (p), Cliff Rathburn (i), JD Mettler (colours)
Image Comics
"The Long War"

Editor's Note: War Heroes #1 arrives in stores this Wednesday, July 23rd.

Mark Millar's latest project sees him tackle a story which centres around his own fictionalised take on the current war in the Middle East. Millar mixes a reasonably realistic take on the present day political landscape with an altogether more fantastical angle that promises to take the story in some rather more unusual directions. I'm sure a lot of readers will find themselves reminded of the writer's previous work on Ultimates before the issue is over, but War Heroes doesn't have the flashy codenames or well-known personas of the Avengers to rely on for its appeal. So Millar has had to work that little bit harder to make this attractive to casual readers.

Millar taps into the current zeitgeist quickly, littering his opening pages with buzzwords that reflect the culture of fear that seems to be so pervasive in modern society. In quick succession, we hear about the "War on Terror" and insurgents in Baghdad; we see a Muslim suicide bomber attack the Lincoln memorial, followed by another attack in L.A.; and we learn that the resultant state of chaos plunges America into an even more entrenched war against terrorism, including the introduction of Martial Law in the USA, and the invasion of Iran. Then Millar introduces the second component of his book, and one that promises to make War Heroes simultaneously novel and familiar to readers of superhero comics, as we see that the US government has introduced an incentive in order to encourage people to sign up for the armed forces: superhero-esque powers.

Those readers who have followed Millar's work on Kick-Ass will know what I mean when I say that this book feels simultaneously novel and familiar. As with Kick-Ass, the ideas that Millar is playing with are not new or particularly imaginative, but he's treating them in such a way that they feel reasonably innovative, grounding them in the real world to explore just what might happen if these superhero-esque powers were available for military use. So despite a slightly underwhelming presentation of the series' hook (it's difficult to make the concept of super-powers feel truly fresh and exciting - especially such derivative and straightforward ones as added strength and super-speed - and the book never really sells the "wow" factor of the soldiers' abilities), War Heroes does feel like a fairly original concept - or at least a logical extension of the ideas that Millar was playing with in Ultimates.

Speaking of Ultimates, there has been a lot of talk of War Heroes being based around Millar's original ideas for Ultimates 3. Whether this is true or just a lot of empty hype, bringing this project to Image rather than basing it in one of Marvel's superhero Universes was probably a wise move for Millar. There is a sense of greater freedom here, and the absence of other superhero characters allows the soliders to appear more special and unique than they might seem in a sea of spandex.

The themes of superheroes as persons of mass destruction and the use of flawed do-gooders as tools of a belligerent government that were examined in Ultimates are still present, but rather than concentrating on a small group of celebrity superheroes, this book is more focused on the regular soldiers that make up the ground force in the American war on terror. Millar's satire of the current state of American warfare may cut uncomfortably close to the bone for some readers, with the knee-jerk, reactionary politics, the patriotic, bombastic recruitment slogans and the youthfully naive recruits ("This is like playing video games") feeling more plausible than many may care to admit.

The writing isn't flawless; Millar has a frequent tendency to be heavy-handed that he doesn't manage to avoid here, with an almost total lack of subtlety in his setting up of the scenario, and patches of dialogue that feel forced and seem to have been included solely for the purposes of exposition. However, the blunt, broad-strokes approach to storytelling works well as a satire of the media's dumbed-down and over-simplified portrayal of complex political issues, and I hope to see greater subtlety and complexity in the writing as the series progresses and Millar begins to examine his ideas in more depth. For now, though, we can make do with some interesting subplots (including one that looks as though it'll deal with the possible abuse of the super-power-pills), and the late introduction of several new characters in the closing pages of the book, suggesting that the book will broaden its canvas in future issues.

I haven't talked about Tony Harris' artwork yet, and that's a major omission, as his work elevates this from a three or three-and-a-half bullet book to an easy four. The black-and-white preview copy that I had to review shows off Harris' draughtsmanship even more clearly than the fully coloured final product does, with a real precision to the linework and an ability to tell his and Millar's story very clearly and cleanly on a visual level. Harris is called upon to provide a montage that conveys Millar's backstory with a minimum of fuss, to give life to brand new characters through their body language and facial expressions, and to provide more than one flashy moment that will sell the superhero angle effectively. And he accomplishes all of these tasks with ease.

It's also nice to see Harris make use of some new character models, as his lead characters tend to be based on similar designs from project to project (although Dave Wylie from Ex Machina does appear to crop up at one point here). Cliff Rathburn's inking is precise and faithful, and what I've seen of JD Mettler's colours from the online previews suggests that the overall package will be just as slick as we've come to enjoy in their Ex Machina collaborations.

Millar seems to be a very busy man these days. In addition to his other creator-owned project, Kick-Ass, he also has his work on 1985, Fantastic Four and Wolverine to contend with, but anyone who was worried that this final project might be a weak link in the chain will be reassured by this opener. The ideas may be a little familiar, and the plot might not advance beyond the basic setup in this first issue, but this is a solid debut that sets up the book's premise quickly and efficiently, and shows a lot of potential for the future. One to watch.



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