Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review: The Order #1-#10

I was pretty thrilled to find all ten issues of the short-lived, 2007 Marvel series The Order in a fifty-cent bin the other day, as the trade collection of this Internet-beloved, market-rejected Matt Fraction/Barry Kitson series has long been on my To Buy, Someday list (Also in that bin? The first two issues of DC Universe: Legacies and issues #1 and #3 of Siege, two title I passed on due to their ridiculously high cover prices, but I perhaps foolishly passed ‘em up since the weren’t complete runs. That was one fine fifty cent-bin though.)

The above panel is from the second issue of the series, in which the two leaders of the new Marvel super-team seek to engage a publicist, and she rather prophetically explains why this title wouldn’t be long for the world.

Prior to reading, I knew two things about the book.

First, that it was originally announced as The Champions, reviving the team-name of Marvel’s previous left coast super-team, but that name had to be changed when Heroic Publishing claimed that violated their trademark on the name. Marvel settled on The Order, a revival of the name of a Defenders off-shoot team but it was an exceptionally poor choice, having ominous, negative connotations that were the opposite of those evoked by “The Champions.” (In retrospect, they probably should have went with West Coast Avengers, or even Defenders).

And second, it was prematurely canceled, leading to a lot of teeth-gnashing and/or clucking about how unreceptive the current market is when it comes to new characters and concepts.

Having now read the book, I was a bit surprised at just how new it really was. It spun out of Mark Millar, Steve McNiven and company’s massively popular Civil War series, having gotten a brief conceptual cameo there. Part of Tony “Iron Man” Stark and his allies’ list of ways to improve the world, The Champions/Order team was to be one of the fifty Fifty-Stat Initiative Avengers teams, this one filled out by artificially-created super-teams given names, powers and roles based on the idea of the mythical Olympian pantheon (An aside: In other words, Millar’s big idea here was to have another writer base a series around something Grant Morrison once referred to an a Newsarama interview about how he decided on the line-up for his JLA run…?).

The fact that this book spins out of that scene in Civil War, some occasionally guest-spots by Tony Stark, and old Iron Man supporting character Pepper Potts on the team is the extent of the Marvel Universe buttressing the book had (And, oddly, the whole Greek god thing is referenced in the first issue, and then completely ignored: None of the heroes have code names, costumes and, in most cases, powers derived from Olympian inspiration).

Perhaps that ended up being a factor in The Order’s quick cancellation, but the fact that Fraction and Kitson came up with so many brand-new characters and tried to give a new book a go with them is in itself rather admirable. New-ness is, or course, relative, and as superheroes, these characters aren’t the most original lot, as a glance at the cover there will attest: Giant robot guy, Superman analogue, Flash-powered guy who looks like he’s wearing Gravity’s costume, a blonde in a belly shirt with a frighteningly elongated torso a la DC’s 2005 version of Supergirl, etc.

The codenames all sounded mostly like they could have been members of an early nineties Image Comics team that appeared in a series that only had one issue—Heavy, Anthem, Pierce, Maul, Calamity, Mulholland Black (sounds like Manchester Black). The costumes are, individually, quite uninspired and seemingly cut from the same cloth as way too many of the post-Ultimates superhero costumes have been (although Kitson or whoever was responsible did a pretty neat job of trying to make them look like team uniforms through colors and logos without actually making them uniform) and, for the most part, the powers are overly familiar and easily assigned as inspired by those of previous superheroes.

As individual superheroes then, this is a pretty lame collection, and it’s hard to imagine most of them carrying a book of their own.

That is, of course, completely beside the point though, since they don’t have to carry a book of their own; they were created to be a team in a team book, and it’s therefore more important how they function as pieces of a whole rather than as individuals.

And while the superhero personas of the various characters are mostly derivative and uninteresting, the characters themselves are all pretty interesting, Fraction have invested a lot of work into making well-rounded characters with big, exciting, diverse backgrounds chockfull of potential future sub-plots to be explored (Of course, given that most of them barely get introduced before the story and the title ends, it almost seems like an unfortunate waste that Fraction did give so many characters so much personality).

The way Fraction reveals theses characters is clever; “clever” meaning perhaps “cutesy” or perhaps “smart,” depending on how generous you’re feeling or, perhaps, what kind of mood you’re in when you’re reading the comics. I read them all in two big chunks, so it didn’t strike me as tiresome—perhaps it would have if I was reading it one issue a month over the course of the better part of a year though.

Each issue is structured to open and close with a different character talking directly to the reader or a camera, reality show “confessional” style, while an unseen, off-panel interviewer asks them questions. Long, horizontal “widescreen” panels offering silent images to back up or contradict the characters’ dialogue appear at regular intervals during pauses in the conversations. It’s an awful lot of telling rather than showing, but there’s enough showing thrown in that it reads like a subversive form of info-dumping.

This is only one part of the strict format structuring in the series; after these introductions, each issue also features a trio of related quotes to set the mood or reflect the action (A note on my personal preferences: I’m not a fan of quotes in comics), similar lay-outs for each issue, and rather intriguing last pages, with several small panels of conversation rather than the typical, Geoff Johns-style “Oh shit!” splash-image cliffhanger.

Overall, I rather liked it.

The benefit of an all-original, no-name cast like this is a lot of the rules readers come to expect in their super-comics don’t apply, and thus everything is much more suspenseful. If Batman’s caught in a death trap, no reader worries that he might get killed off and, in the rare instances in which he actually might die, the reader can rest assured the death is temporary. Is there sexual tension between Aquaman and Wonder Woman in an issue of JLA? Maybe, but they’re probably not going to ever hook up, get married or have any kids or anything. Dick Grayson’s not going to betray Batman. The Punisher’s not going to quit shooting dudes to retire and open a bakery.

But with a bunch of characters who have only existed a month or so, and who were created specifically created to put through this particular melodrama/action wringer? Anything goes yo.

As I said, Fraction has created some extremely interesting characters (for super-comics), and he manages to instill each issue with the perfect balance of a zaniness, real-world relevance and character-danger that seems realistic for the Marvel Universe as we’ve come to know it. In one issue the team might fight for their lives against zombie hobos (“Zobos,”) but they also have to deal with zoning issues, city and national politics and inter-personal conflicts.

Ten issues isn’t very many issues, but it seems awfully respectable in retrospect, as more recent Marvel series haven’t lasted that long, despite the benefit of longer-lived characters more ingrained in the Marvel Universe (Aside form the Iron Man cameos, Namor is the biggest-name guest-star, and he appears in a single issue).

Captain Britain and MI-13 lasted 15 issues, but it had some name recognition and some characters people had actually heard of before. The last stab at Exiles lasted six issues; they just canceled the latest attempt at an Agents of Atlas series at, what, five issues? Doctor Voodoo: Avenger of the Supernatural and S.W.O.R.D. lasted five a piece.

So ten issues of The Order? Not bad, guys. It’s somewhat unfortunate that the book didn’t last longer though, in large part because some of the initial premise seemed to be tied up in the fact that the various heroes would only have superpowers for on year’s time due to a flaw in the artificial superpower creation process. The characters had no choice but to burn out then, and there would have eventually been an element of urgency and desperation in their careers as superheroes, but we didn’t get to see any of that in action yet, nor much in the way of what would happen to the characters after they lost their powers (we do see some bitter, ex-Order members who have their powers prematurely stripped, however).

Would The Order occasionally get an entirely new cast? Would Fraction have written it in “Seasons” as if it were a TV show? Would the old characters stick around once they lost their powers?

It might have been interesting to find out.

In the seventh issue, Namor spends much of the issue being a prick to team leader Anthem, and talks about his own longevity in the world of superheroes and Marvels:Four years? Anthem and The Order didn’t even last four more months. I wasn’t paying close enough attention to know for sure, but I imagine if I reread the series, I’d be able to pick out the exact moment at which Marvel realized they’d be canceling the title, as Kitson’s presence seems to decrease the longer the title goes on, and more and more artists get involved.

He gets an “art by” credit in the first three issues, while Mark Morales gets an inking credit. For the fourth issue, Jon Sibal joins Morales on inks. For the fifth issue, Kitson is just providing layouts, while Khari Evans pencils (I love Evans’ work, but he draws nothing like Kitson).

For the last three issues of the series, Kitson handles breakdowns, and the credits as well as the bylines start changing from issue to issue. Order #8 finishes by Kitson, Stefano Guadiano, Paul Neary and Jon Sibal. Order #9 has penils by Javier Saltares and inks by Guardiano and Serek Fridolfs. For #10, there are pencils and finishes; Saltares for the former, Scott Hanna, Olazaba and Nelson for the latter.

So when the book reaches its halfway point, Kitson seems to arbitrarily recede, and then briefly return, before the book visually disintegrates. The rather rigid formatting of each issue that I discussed earlier helps redeem the book—the line work and character designs start to vary widely, but the book looks and reads the same due to the layouts—but The Order’s lame duck status can be read quite clearly on the pages of it’s last few installments.

It was well worth the $5 I paid for it, although I’m pretty sure I would have been sorely disappointed had I paid $26 for the two $13 trade paperbacks collecting the series. It’s certainly an interesting book to look at and consider though, for the way it illustrates a valiant attempt to try to sell new-ness to the Marvel audience and to capitalize on one of Millar’s ideas for a new series seeded into Civil War (This and Avengers: The Initiative were really the only brand-new series launched out of concepts in Civil War, right? The rest of “The Initiative” branded books were just tweaks of status quo, right?) and, I think, ultimately as a signpost in Fraction’s career. At the very least, the start of his Invincible Iron Man can be seen in the book, and a couple of elements—the setting, the prominence of Namor—prefigure some of what he’d do with the X-Men franchise.


Thomas said...

I really loved the series when it came out--and I always suspected it was never meant to survive, given how all the villainy stuff was tied into building up Fraction's pet bad guy, Stane Jr....which is why, when the series stopped so abruptly (I didn't even know it was cancelled at the time), I felt so let down.

2badguys said...

This series was really enjoyable and even though the concepts for some of the powers were not entirely original, the characters themselves were really interesting and the story revolved around them as people as opposed to them as heroes.
It totally sucked when the art went rapidly downhill and the series came to a stupidly abrupt end (I too didn't realise it was cancelled).

Action Ash

LurkerWithout said...

I had planned on trade-waiting on this one but then I flipped thru the final issue. And I decided that any book where the heroes best plan to help their teammate and save the city is killing her wasn't the book for me...