It isn't always a bad thing for a book to defy your expectations. On the strength of No Heroís debut #0 issue, I expected the series to provide a superhero team book in the Authority/Black Summer mold, peppered with original sci-fi concepts and dialogue but driven by the whodunit plot that was established in that first chapter. However, the series has turned out to be far more rooted in the exploration of its characters and concepts than in this larger plot.
I wonder whether this was always Ellisí intention, or whether his plans for the series have changed as heís got to know his characters better. Either way, the result is an entertaining, thought provoking and darkly comedic story, and one that doesnít simple rehash the tired old ďsuperheroes in the real worldĒ clichťs that weíve seen so many times before.
This issue, in particular, relies on a combination of sick humor and a cynical approach to super-heroics that occasionally makes it feel more like a Garth Ennis comic than a Warren Ellis book. However, it isnít an overt satire on superhero comics in the same way that books like The Boys can claim to be, opting to bend the conventions of the genre to Ellisís will, rather than break them completely. This allows the writer to take familiar concepts in a new direction, exploring real world social and political institutions through his fantastical lens.
In the same way that Watchmen made itself relevant in an age of Cold War paranoia and escalating international tension, No Hero makes its take on superheroes relevant to the present day political climate. We live in an age in which private military contractors view global political conflicts as mere commercial problems to be solved, multinational companies wield more political influence than sovereign states, the widening rich/poor divide leads to an increase in the number of both gated communities and poverty-ridden slums, and the inventions of political spin doctors are more palatable to the public than uncomfortable truths of reality. Ellis reflects these and other concerns through the machinations of Carrick Mastersonís Frontline organization.
Frontline is a collective of superheroes who claim to play an essential peacekeeping role, but who have gradually been revealed to be a secretive, insular organization of questionable morality, and one thatís as preoccupied by PR concerns as it is with maintaining a safe society. Itís interesting to note the manner in which the seemingly altruistic group that we saw in No Hero #0 (originally known as the Levellers) has become a cold, clinical peacekeeping organization with militaristic overtones and methods that border on being fascistic. Perhaps this is Ellisís way of reflecting the idea that the road to Hell can be paved with good intentions, and that even the most well-meaning organizations will be susceptible to corruption, desensitization, and an inevitable decline and fall from grace.
Ellisís characters are a little less interesting than his story concepts, although some of them do capture the imagination. This issue sees Frontlineís new recruit, Joshua Carver, continue to experience the unpleasant results of Mastersonís FX7 drug whilst also becoming the center of a PR nightmare for the organization. In order to limit the potential damage caused by last issueís cliffhanger, Masterson agrees to send Carver out into the city to mix with the public in order to reacquire their trust. This plan is far more successful than expected, with Carver getting a chance to prove his worth as a superhero (albeit a slightly clumsy and inexperienced one) towards the issueís end. However, itís a moment that is almost immediately undercut by a cynical reveal that casts his actions in a new light and also encourages readers to consider the possibility that their own real-world peacekeeping organizations could be more complicit in threats to their freedom than we might like to think.
Artist Juan Jose Ryp continues to provide highly detailed artwork that conveys all of the important story points effectively. In particular, the grotesqueness of Joshuaís transformation due to the effects of FX7 is almost completely reliant on the artwork, with Rypís design imbuing Carver with a stronger sense of horror and disgust than Ellisís writing achieves. Try to picture Sesame Streetís Cookie Monster after having been fed through a meat-mincing machine, and youíll come close to Rypís horrendous design for the unfortunate youth.
Rypís sequential storytelling is also strong. Although some of the quieter moments of Ellisís script suffer from a lack of spectacle, the more dynamic scenes are thrilling under Rypís pencil. Most memorable is the sequence in which Joshua is called upon to stop an airplane from crashing into the center of San Francisco. The entire sequence is rendered in a highly cinematic style, with Ryp saving his big splashpages for the most dramatic moments of the story, whilst also clearly depicting the action in his smaller panels (for example, the flight path of the aircraft to the reader is conveyed via a deftly-employed aerial shot of the city). Thereís also another great hallucinatory splashpage earlier in the issue, evoking the same disturbing vibe as similar sequences from earlier issues. Under a lesser artist these could become tiresome and repetitive, but Rypís high level of detail and vivid imagination makes each one interesting and unique.
Finally, Rypís ability to pack the book with tiny details makes every page a rich reading experience. Thereís a Whereís Wally quality to some of the crowd shots that makes them a lot of fun for attentive readers. Take the short sequence in which Masterson opens up the gates of his compound to a group of waiting journalists as an example: over the course of just two panels, we see several individual vignettes play out in different areas of the frame, creating a genuine feeling that the world of No Hero is full of living, breathing characters rather than mere mannequins that exist only to make a panel look busy and crowded. Similarly, the dialogue-free sequence in which Joshua meets and greets his public benefits from Rypís ability to quickly establish characters and situations.
My only real criticism of the issue (and of the series overall) is quite a general one: Iím not sure if I have any real desire to read it a second time. Whilst the breadth of ideas being discussed is impressive, I donít sense a huge amount of depth in Ellisís treatment of them, and unless the writer is saving a major twist for the closing chapters, I donít know that Iíll feel motivated to revisit the book in future. As such, I may never experience it as the ďgraphic novelĒ that it purports to be on the cover of each serialized chapter. Still, thatís hardly the most damning indictment in the world and the fact that the series is providing an entertaining and thought-provoking read every month that it appears makes it a lot more worthy of its audienceís time and attention than many other publications.
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