Saturday, March 12, 2005

Armor X #1 review

If you're here looking for the Rob Osborne 1000 Steps to World Domination contest, just scroll down. It's right below this review.

Armor X #1 came out this week, one of the many recent and upcoming Image launches that have been keeping me excited about what the publisher has in store for 2005. The solicitation copy struck a chord of interest for me: essentially, this series (a four-issue mini, if I'm not mistaken) promises to look at the "With great power" trope we've seen a thousand times over, but with a much darker edge. What if Peter Parker wasn't such a spunky, resiliant young lad? What if a super-hero-style power suddenly fell in the hands of a more damaged kid, someone much more potentially dangerous? Would the spirit of heroism shine through and triumph, or would we see the origin story of a super-villain?

These seem to be the questions that writer Kieth Champagne is asking, and I think they're compelling questions. As much as I love Spider-Man, it's always seemed a little too easy for him to continue to try to do the right thing. He screws up a lot, sure, especially in Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man, but there's always a heart of gold in there, just bumbling around and trying to do the best he can. I'm glad to see a series that questions this God-given do-goodery and offers a more edgy slant on the origin.

The main character here is Carson, a high school senior with no friends, and even with my expectations that he would be shown as a 'darker' sort of protagonist, his characterization surprised me by really pushing the envelope. This is a fucked up kid. Early in the book we see him being picked on by your usual pack of team-jacket-wearing jock bullies, who actually call him "Columbine" and issue the usual threats, and my first instinct as a reader is to assume he's being wrongfully persecuted.

Nope.

He's saved from this first encounter by an intervention from the Alpha Jock, a character named Rico who takes the Harry Osborn role and calls off the wolves, because deep down he really likes Carson. And while I'm inclined to roll my eyes at the introduction of such a stock character and action, I have to say the art in this sequence suspended my disbelief pretty effectively. One panel in particular, showing the expression on Rico's face as he stares down his jock subordinates, was whimsical and interesting, and combined with some pretty solid dialogue from Rico, it redeemed the scene. Next, of course, since Carson hasn't been able to really explain himself yet, I'm expecting to see the scene where the two of them take a moment to connect and understand each other.

This is where my expectations started getting shoved to the side. Carson spits in Rico's face, running off and telling Rico, "You're all on the list!" We then follow Carson through a series of scenes that really illustrate that the creators are not demanding that we sympathize with Carson. He's shown - very effectively, I thought, with fair restraint concerning cliches - to really be an asshole. We're given clear clues about why he's such a dick, but we're not asked to take those explanations as excuses. It's an approach I always appreciate, and it's especially important in a story like this. That Champagne approaches the character in this fashion impresses me, and provides some reassurance that he'll be able to jump what I consider this series' greatest hurdle.

And that is that when I think about it, and read this book on paper, I realize that I don't want the answers to the questions this series will raise. I don't want it to be a super-hero story where the integrity of the human spirit finally rises above adversity. I don't want it to be a super-villain origin story. What I do want is a little more ambiguity, a little more nuance, something that will leave me still thinking when it's over. Does this series run the risk of becoming one of those simplistic fables with the moral explained at the end? Yes, it does. That was my main concern from the beginning. We aren't given a conclusive answer in the opening issue whether or not Armor X will succumb to that style of storytelling, but the characterization of the main character thus far is reassuring.

The pacing is strong here, and appropriate for a first issue. We're introduced to all the main players - including Carson's love interest, a blind girl who surprised the hell out of me with a seriously racy bit of dialogue in her opening scene with Carson - and the premise is completely filled out, with a couple questions and mysteries introduced and an appropriate (if slightly predictable) cliffhanger closing everything out. It's a well-proportioned episode of the story, and that's something I've been particularly sensitive to in recent months, as my monthly pull-list has grown a bit and I've started to pay closer and closer attention to the way creators take advantage of the serial format, looking for titles to drop in favor of waiting for the collected editions. I'm happy to say that this issue, at least, packs just the right amount of story and development.

A moment here about the artwork: it's competent. Nothing here totally blows me away, but as I said earlier, there are moments where facial expressions really hold a scene together, and some credit has to be given for an artist who can do that. Andy Smith doesn't really express a very unique style here, to the extent that the costume design immediately brings to mind the old X-O Manowar costume from back in the good old Valiant days (and funny enough, X-O artist Bart Sears does a pin-up on the back cover). But Smith's work does service the story well, with clear storytelling and sequencing.

Armor X #1 doesn't completely assuage my concerns about the potential weaknesses behind its premise, but it also exceeds my expectations regarding its strengths. I'll be checking out the rest of the series.

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