War Machine #1
Writer: Greg Pak
Artist: Leonardo Manco
Colors: Jay David Ramos
Letters: Virtual Calligraphy
Cover artists: Leonardo Manco (regular edition) & Mike Deodato (variant)
Editor: Bill Rosemann
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $2.99 US
While one could argue that a darker tone in Greg Pak stories isn’t a new thing (see The Incredible Hulk, World War Hulk), with War Machine, he explores much grittier terrain than he has in the past. Sure, Pak writes a bloody barbarian story in Skaar, Son of Hulk, but what makes War Machine harsher in tone is the fact that it’s much more grounded in reality, even though it stars an armor-clad cyborg. While this new title clearly has its roots in the Marvel Universe, it reads like an independent title with super-hero trappings, yet something that’s still limited by a larger brand. Pak’s premise portrays the title character as something of a Punisher type with a focus on war crimes rather than street-level corruption. Given Pak’s track record and stories that led up to this new ongoing series, I expect we’ll see more depth in James Rhodes’s character in forthcoming issues. I hope so, as there wasn’t much to be found in this inaugural issue. I know I sound overly negative about this first issue, and I don’t mean to be. Pak and artist Leonardo Manco offer up an intense, kinetic opening chapter, but their creative child’s initial steps are awkward ones at times.
James Rhodes died a year ago… or he would have, if Tony (Iron Man) Stark weren’t his best friend. Ever the engineer, Stark rebuilt his friend’s body and strengthened his now cybernetic core with a powerful new shell, a take on his War Machine armor. Now outfitted with a satellite headquarters, Rhodes, ever the soldier at heart, sets out to punish other soldiers all over the world, men who had been like himself but crossed the line to commit war crimes in the name of God, a cause or just money. His mission brings him face to face with a former friend turned mercenary, a man who would kill him as soon as look at him. And through his hatred, Rhodes sees the potential for a new ally.
Manco’s artwork is gritty and realistic, and it’s certainly in keeping with the martial approach to the title character and the conflicts. What’s really eye-catching is the design work that accomplishes two key elements: conveying the advanced technology of War Machine’s armor and providing key background and plot information in a seamless way. I like that the tech elements aren’t too shiny, that they’re dirty and imposing rather than sleek and beautiful. The visuals occasionally become too detailed, making for cramped and busy panels from time to time.
As for the “villain variant” cover: it’s a distration, one I hope most readers don’t see on comic-shop shelves. It’s misleading and detracts from what Pak seems to be trying to do with the book.
Appropriately enough, this new title has a lot in common with Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s Invincible Iron Man. Aside from the fact that both books feature protagonists in Stark armor, they both also boast artwork that’s realistic in tone and the most recent issues have cliffhanger endings pointing to a major conflict with the same character (albeit for slightly different reasons). Nevertheless, they’re radically different books. Invincible Iron Man doesn’t work without the Marvel Universe. It needs that foundation. War Machine works better outside of it, without it altogether. The Marvel Universe hinders this book, even if the title character emerged from it. While Pak and Manco include some surprisingly vivid violence that actually belongs in a book about the horrors of war, Pak withholds more powerful commentary from his script by fictionalizing the wars, the settings and the players. There’s a certain timidity in disguising the real-world people, places and politics that War Machine targets in his mission. And that timidity is unfortunate, because Marvel is trying something new and different with this series. I understand why this kind of timidity, this kind of roundabout censorship, is done to keep from offending people by incorporating the most ugly, horrifying events from real life into an super-hero/adventure story. But the real point isn’t action or adventure, but commentary. And the commentary would be more powerful and pointed if it was about what it’s meant to be about. 6/10