Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

The Dusty Dozen

Posted by Don MacPherson on January 18th, 2008

The Twelve #1
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Pencils: Chris Weston
Inks: Garry Leach
Colors: Chris Chuckry
Letters: Comicraft
Cover artist: Kaare Andrews
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.05 CAN

Ever since I started reading super-hero comics in the late 1970s and discovered DC’s concept of Earth-2, I’ve been fascinated by costumed characters from the medium’s Golden Age. I didn’t start reading Marvel titles until the mid 1980s, so I have a greater familiarity with DC’s classic characters (as well as those they’ve acquired over the years, such as the Fawcett and Quality super-heroes). I’ve since discovered and enjoyed many stories featuring some of Marvel’s Golden Age properties, but those spotlighted in this new title are new names to me. I relished the opportunity to get to know more ideas from the past. J. Michael Straczynski’s plot handles these characters as being literally out of their own time, and he manages to balance the silliness and oddities of 1940s comics storytelling with a more modern sensibility. However, I came away from the issue with the sense I’d read something that was, unfortunately, almost wholly unoriginal. A multitude of deconstructionist super-hero stories have told in the wake of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen over the past couple of decades, but The Twelve is strikingly derivative of that source material. I suspect newer readers who haven’t experienced Watchmen will enjoy this comic book, and once a more discerning reader acknowledges the parentage of this plot and gets past it, the storytelling is solid and diverting.

In April 1945, Allied forces storm Berlin, spelling the end of Hitler’s Third Reich. Joining the soldiers in the assault are America’s colorfully clad heroes, from Captain America and the Invaders to a number of lesser-known champions. A dozen of those more obscure heroes are dispatched to Gestapo headquarters, only to fall victim to a Nazi trap. More than six decades later, a construction project uncovers the dormant forms of those strange crusaders, and the U.S. government sees an opportunity to establish a platoon of superhuman soldiers more firmly under its control.

Weston’s artwork serves the contrasting tone of the story quite well. On the one hand, we’ve got these campy, weird characters designed to entertain people from two generations ago, and on the other, we’ve got Straczynski’s darker, cynical script that attempts to bring a more credible tone to the oddball nature of the dramatis personae. Weston walks that fine line adeptly in his visual representation of the players. He makes the Rockman seem formidable and intimidating, but at the same time, he seems oddly pathetic and unbalanced as well. Weston’s work on this comic book reminds me a bit of the styles of such artists as J.H. (Batman: “League of Batmen”) Williams III and Tony (Ex Machina) Harris at times.

Colorist Chris Chuckry also manages to observe the same balance between light and dark, capturing the Day-Glo colors of Golden Age costumes while also instilling a slightly dark, muted tone in the colors. Like many Straczynski efforts before, the script for this comic is rather dense, but Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt manages to keep the wordy narrative captions and word balloons from intruding on the visuals too much. Kaare Andrews really made a name for himself as the cover artist on such Marvel titles as Amazing Spider-Man and Hulk a few years ago, with inventive and photorealistic imagery. That’s not the case here. The computer-enhanced cover art looks a bit awkward. The characters are stiff, and the effort toward realism falls short. The logo for the title “team” is rather uninteresting as well.

While the core plot of this story isn’t the same as that in Watchmen, the overall atmosphere is distinctly reminiscent of the classic Moore/Gibbons work. Furthermore, there are clear similarities in the structures of the two. The story opens here with a flashback to 1945 when the heroes were in their heyday. There were similar flashbacks in Watchmen, when the heroes were in their prime. And while there were signs that things were amiss back then, generally, the heroes were more accepted in the simpler setting. The same holds true with the Twelve’s depiction in this story. Deception by the establishment also factors into both stories, and judging from the flash-forward splash page at the end of this issue, we’ll also see the heroes turn against one another, as was the case in Watchmen. I’m not saying that such deconstructionist stories have no place in the wake of Watchmen; I’ve enjoyed a number of them over the years. But The Twelve rings just too many of the same bells for me, making for distractions as I tried to immerse myself in the story.

Straczynski’s story and script aren’t without their strengths. The narration is presented in the voice of a hero named The Phantom Reporter, a classic crimefighter in the style of the Shadow and the Crimson Avenger. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m a crime reporter myself that I’m so taken with the character, but I think it’s more in the way Straczynski writes him. He’s perceptive, determined and suspicious. He comes off as particularly intelligent and reflective. Since the narration is in his voice, he’s the most well-developed player in this drama as well. I also enjoyed the eerie quality that the writer brings to the Electro concept. The reader is left wondering what came of the controls for the robot and what’s in store. 6/10

5 Responses to “The Dusty Dozen”

  1. Don MacPherson Says:

    Over at Occasional Superheroine, Valerie D’Orazio compares The Twelve to Watchmen as well, only more favorably.

  2. Strannik Says:

    I think both the logo and the cover design was supposed to emulate the 30s-40s pulp magazine covers. Still, even with that in mind, the figures on the cover do look kind of stiff.

  3. Ian Says:

    The book does not open with a flashback, it just opens in the past.

  4. Don MacPherson Says:

    Ian wrote:
    The book does not open with a flashback, it just opens in the past.

    True. I was too busy to edit my copy, as I was off in the nit orchard, filling bushel after bushel. Lots of nit-picking to do. ;)

  5. Ronski Says:

    Watchmen became so foundational that any story dealing with the “resurrecting” of superheroes will appear derivative. However, originality can still shine through in characterization and specifics in plot. Is every new super team a derivation of the Avengers or the JLA? Leave it alone! I believe the creators of The Twelve did a great job with the story and demonstrate an creativity in bringing dimension to the characters and their plight.