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True Believers #1

Posted: Tuesday, July 29, 2008
By: Mark J. Hayman

Cary Bates
Paul Gulacy, Rainier Beredo (colors)
Marvel Comics
Editor's Note: True Believers #1 arrives in stores tomorrow, July 30.

"Payback is a Bitch"

The name Cary Bates should be legendary to the comic book community, though his long absence from the medium, missing the entire Internet "revolution" in the process, almost qualifies him as an urban legend. Yet for the better part of twenty years Bates was the cornerstone of DC Comics, including lengthy and near unbroken runs on Action Comics and The Flash, as well as too many Superboy, Legion of Super-Heroes, and Lois Lane stories to easily quantify. Bates also contributed stories to World's Finest, Wonder Woman, and Jimmy Olsen, among other titles, before the famous (or by some accounts "infamous") Crisis On Infinite Earths reboot of the entire DC Universe. Post-Crisis, Bates wrote the entire fifty issue run of DC's first Captain Atom series. Though the perception is not without warrant, Bates wasn't "exclusively" a DC writer, having written for Jim Warren in the late 1970s. Yet the Post-Crisis world wasn't kind to Bates, prompting a (relatively) brief association with Marvel for the New Universe books Nightmask and Spitfire and the Troubleshooters, and the Epic title Video Jack. He also wrote most of the brief Toyboy run for Neal Adams' Continuity imprint, then had something like a last laugh on the industry when he brought Gene Colan to DC for the limited series Silverblade. That was in 1988. Apart from a Hawkman story in 2004, for all the fan community knew, Bates might have been living on Mars. Then came a meeting with Tom Brevoort and the perhaps unlikely pairing with another legend, Paul Gulacy, and out of left field comes True Believers.

Gulacy is probably best known for his many, many covers. Capital Comics even solicited him to illustrate covers for the original Nexus books. On the one hand, that was probably some savvy marketing, but on the other it's mind-boggling that they would have presumed that Steve Rude needed someone else to help sell Horatio's adventures. Gulacy earned his reputation years before when he defined the look of Shang Chi on Master of Kung Fu and illustrated Don McGregor's Sabre, one of the first "graphic novels" (later reprinted in colour by Eclipse). Most recently, apart from covers, Gulacy has illustrated JSA: Classified, Squadron Supreme: Hyperion vs. Nighthawk, and Penance: Relentless. Gulacy's style is a direct antecedent from modern artists such as Bryan Hitch and John Cassaday, while Gulacy himself was no doubt most influenced by the EC group, especially Jack Davis, Al Williamson, and Wally Wood, though one sees more than a hint of the Florentine Renaissance peeking through.

True Believers opens with a quote from J.K. Rowling, but I'm not going to hold that against it (I'm actually very fond of the Harry Potter series, but Rowling doesn't quite top my list of authors whose names spring to mind when looking for words of substance). We're quickly introduced to the central character, Serenity (an alias), and the dangerous games she plays in search of the truth. Posing as a prostitute in lower Manhattan, Serenity allows herself to be picked-up as part of an investigation into the brutalization and disappearance of a host of inexperienced working girls. The plan immediately slips when Serenity is chloroformed and spirited to a Long Island estate, where she's prepped for a Coliseum-style match against other, drugged, opponents. Unfortunately for her captors, Serenity has super-powers and a team of like-minded individuals waiting to back her up.

The central plot is the ongoing exposure of conspiracy, corruption and malfeasance perpetrated by the wealthy and powerful, with the results of their investigations published on an untraceable website run by the eponymous characters. The operators of the twisted girl-fight-club, led by a U.S. Senator of the oiliest kind (and practically snatched from real-world headlines), had dressed up as super-heroes (the Senator himself wore a convincing Hulk costume) to preserve their anonymity and discredit survivors of their circus. This is a wink at what's to come as the True Believers' next mission (or "target", if you will), revealed on the final page, involves arguably the most famous superhero on Earth (the most famous to them, not us, so it isn't Spider-Man; besides, Pete has enough problems).

The team is led by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and mole Mavis Trent, a.k.a. "Payback" (a.k.a. "Serenity", at least for the start of this chapter), who possesses what's referred to as an "Exo-Sheath," granting her a variety of abilities including super-strength and a measure of invulnerabilty, wrapped in a quasi-psychedelic aura. Her cohorts include "Headtrip," equipped with some as yet unrevealed psychic ability ("empathy" is mentioned), "Red Zone," whose unknown powers stem from a mighty morphing baseball cap (that turns into a cool looking, red Star Wars-type helmet), and "Battalus," who apart from having probably the silliest codename I've heard in years, wears an advanced suit of armour with, again, unknown properties apart from considerable strength and durability. In addition to their personal items, the team possesses advanced surveillance and stealth technology. Where it all comes from and who's footing the bill remains to be seen.

S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken an interest in this band of vigilantes, of course, as unregistered post-humans are verbotten in the United States. Thanks to some internal disinformation and misdirection, and curiosity as to who and what might next be exposed, the world's top cops opt for a wait and see policy, but it's only a matter of time before the hammer falls on Marvel's newest super-group.

Thematically, I suppose that True Believers falls somewhere between Heroes for Hire and The Defenders (with a dash of The Pulse). Outsiders fighting the good fight and all that. The difference is their greater agenda, the global exposure of famous (and infamous) people doing or having done very naughty things. This doesn't appear to benefit them in any noticeable way, except on a Karmic level, and their activities definitely put them in harm's way, both physically and legally. Thus they live up to their chosen name.

Paul Gulacy's art is lovely as usual. There's the odd hiccup with proportion and perspective but nothing to get terribly worked up about. If the look isn't quite "vintage" Gulacy, I'd attribute it to the colouring. Beredo does an estimable job but the technique seems so common that it fails to add anything (except the actual colour). Some of Gulacy's greatest work has been published in black and white, as intended, allowing his bold, often stark lines to capture and expand upon the nature of the text. What I find here is very pretty, and well designed, but uninspiring, which makes me sad. Hopefully down the road a collected edition will include samples of the original, uncoloured pages.

As with the opening quote, there's nothing markedly profound to be had, but overall this issue presents an interesting if somewhat vague introduction to the characters (and, less vaguely, the plot). It does manage to provoke considerable curiosity of the most prurient kind as to what's next, however. I think I need to take a shower after this, but can't decide whether to make it hot or cold...







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