Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Agents of Shield

Posted by Don MacPherson on April 6th, 2013

New Crusaders, Book 1: Rise of the Heroes trade paperback
Writer: Ian Flynn
Pencils: Ben Bates & Alitha Martinez
Inks: Gary Martin
Colors: Matt Herms & Steve Downer
Letters: John Workman
Editor: Paul Kaminski
Publisher: Archie Comics/Red Circle Comics
Price: $14.99 US/$17.99 CAN

I don’t have any particular affection for the Red Circle super-hero characters. I have few examples of past iterations of these characters and comics in my collection, though there’s no denying the long life and staying power of the properties. Writer Ian Flynn (and an editorial committee, judging from the credit given to a “Red Circle braintrust” here) has opted to take a legacy approach to the Crusaders, distinguishing more familiar incarnations of the heroes as a Golden/Silver Age generation and introducing a new group of young heroes who find themselves forced to carry on their parents’/mentors’ mission. Flynn is hardly breaking new ground here, but fans of such heroic legacy stories (once the domain of DC’s Justice Society stories, before its New 52 relaunch) might enjoy what they find here. The overly conventional and familiar tone of the plot and characters, though, combined with a conflict between the visual tone of the storytelling and slightly harsh elements in the plot, left me with kind of a middling feeling, not only once I was finished reading the book but as I made my way from page to page, chapter to chapter.

The members of the Mighty Crusaders gather for a long-overdue reunion, bringing their kids and protégés (who are unaware of their elders’ heroic identities and powers) along for a day of good food and company. Not surprisingly, an old enemy, long thought to be dead, chooses this moment to attack, wiping out the colorful champions. Saved by the quick thinking of the Shield, the kids learn their folks were the original Mighty Crusaders, and the Shield and his allies take steps to ensure the youths can pick up the heroic mantles to become the New Crusaders.

Despite the participation of two pencillers in this collection of the first six issues of the series, there’s a fairly uniform style throughout the volume, and that might be thanks to the efforts of the single inker, longtime comics pro Gary Martin. The overall style here clearly exhibits a strong manga influence, though at times I was reminded a great deal of the former house style for animation adaptations of DC properties, as established by Bruce Timm. There’s a bright, light tone that dominates the book, and for a title that features new, energetic incarnations of old super-hero concepts, it’s a solid approach for the art.

The problem is that the plot doesn’t follow that example (or the art doesn’t follow the plot’s, I suppose). Flynn seems to adapt a slightly grim-n-gritty approach to the storytelling, killing off an entire generation of super-heroes to make way for the new one. He even resorts to the “shocking death” gimmick later in the book, taking out one of the teen heroes. Save for that “surprise,” the lighter tone of the designs and visuals almost blind the reader to the fact that murder and massacre are peppered through this story. It’s almost routine, and it just doesn’t seem like a good fit for these characters and the look that’s established.

Speaking of those looks, I did enjoy the designs for the various new heroes. I’m not who’s responsible for them — the art extras in the back of this book are limited to a gallery of covers and variants for the original issues — but some are striking. Fly-Girl’s is particularly eye-catching (without sexualizing her), and the decision to complete discard the original look for the Comet when developing the new one was a wise choice as well.

I feel compelled to point out a particular pet peeve about this book that’s unrelated to the quality of the storytelling: the price — or to be more specific, the Canadian price. Despite the fact this was published and printed at a time when the Canadian dollar is actually stronger than its American counterpart, the Canadian price for this volume is listed as being $3 more than the American price. While I don’t imagine Canucks make up a particularly large portion of the publisher’s target demographic, the disconnect between the pricing and reality seems like a rather lazy, old-school approach to the book marketplace.

In terms of the writing, what Flynn does best here is establish a sense of history and continuity here. One needn’t be familiar with these characters to appreciate the plot and action, but he also conveys a larger context that will appeal to super-hero genre fans who are used to a shared-universe backdrop.

I have to admit one of my favorite parts of this book are those that brush up against the fourth wall and wink at long-time comics readers and industry history buffs. Flynn has incorporated a number of references to the diverse (or, from another perspective, scattered) publishing history of the Crusaders characters. He’s included references to several of the different imprints and publishers that have handled these properties over their decades-long history; Red Circle, MLJ, Blue Ribbon, Impact — all of these obscure and not-so-subtle references made me smile. Still, while they tickled the part of my brain that loves comics in general, they really had little to do with the story and characters. Ultimately, the reader is left with a rather ordinary super-hero yarn that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. 6/10

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