Saturday, October 23, 2010

Review: Soldier Zero #1

It’s always a little difficult approaching books like this, with a celebrity creator’s name above the title—or in this case, to the immediate right of the title.

It’s especially difficult in this case because, unlike most celebrity creators with a vanity comic book of some sort, this celebrity creator is actually a long-time comic book writer—perhaps the most famous comic book writer still working, and certainly a giant of the American comic book’s history. One would expect Stan Lee to have greater input into this book he created but didn’t write than…well, I won’t name names but, you know, some of those other comics similarly sold by their creator-who-didn’t-write-it as much as the work of the actually, credited writer. Or artist. Or creation.

And then when one factors in Lee’s own troubled legacy in comic book character creation…

I can’t tell by reading this issue exactly what Lee did here. He’s credited as “Grand Poobah,” while Paul Cornell gets a “written by” credit and Javier Pina an “art by” credit (traditionally, the first writer and artists to work on a character or concept are credited as the creator, although obviously this is a special case). Dave Johnson has a “Soldier Zero Character Design” credit, and there’s an editor and editor-in-chief credited as well, so Lee’s not exactly doing what he did for Marvel back in the day either.

What is clear from the work itself, however, is that Lee is, at the very least, definitely serving as inspiration for Cornell. This feels a lot like a Stan Lee comic, and it reads a lot like a Stan Lee comic.

Our hero is a typical Lee character, a hero with feet of clay, someone who’s powers bring with them a whole set of problems. The characters all talk in somewhat snappy, Stan Lee dialogue, although definitely toned down from 1960’s, height-of-his-power Stan Lee’s version of snappy dialogue. There’s a sense of humor about the whole thing, as well as a sense of genuine, “Aw shucks!” affected awe. The comic book takes itself seriously, but not too seriously; sure, there’s a semi-soap opera sense of melodrama, but the characters are somewhat aware of it, so it doesn’t read like camp.

The titular hero and his origin, which has only just begun to unfold in this first issue, will likely call to mind elements of plenty of other superheroes and their origins—Silver Age Green Lantern, the current Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel Jr. and X-O Manowar sprung most immediately to mind while reading, and it’s worth noting that there are elements of those characters that are derivative of other characters as well. All-new superheroes just aren’t that easy to create seven decades after Superman, I guess.

It’s the guy inside the alien super-suit that gets the most panel-time here, though, and he seems a bit more interesting a character.

He’s Stewart Trautmann, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan, and, one terrible injury later, is now a wheelchair-bound astronomy professor and anti-war activist. He has his eye on a cute co-ed who likes him back, but just when they get some alone time to talk, during a meteor shower, wouldn’t you know that “PHA-BLAM!”, the Soldier Zero suit falls to earth right on top of them, bonding with Stewart.The suit is white with red highlights, and while it doesn’t really pop all that much off of the cover above (or most of the many covers this issue is shipping with, actually), Johnson gave it a kind of neat not-really-a-face face design, one-part symbol, one-part traditionally looking earth-armor. It also has mismatched hands—five fingers on the right hand, three on the left—and, most strikingly, animal-like legs that make him look a bit like a sci-fi satyr from the waist down.

This first issue obviously doesn’t reinvent the superhero wheel, but there seems to be some potential here, and someone interested in superheroes but looking for something beyond the two major flavors they typically come in from direct market comics should find a lot to like about this.

It’s old-school without being old-fashioned, and familiar without being a pastiche.

It’s all-ages, which didn’t really jump out at me the first time I read it, but thinking about it in comparison to most of the DCU and Marvel Universe books, this is a comic book one could recommend to a 12-year-old, a teenager or a grown-up without really worrying about whether or not it was appropriate (Which isn’t important to individual readers, obviously, but may be to retailers and librarians or anyone making recommendations).

It’s other advantage over DC and Marvel books is the fact that it is new, and, so far, taking place in it’s own little fictional universe, so there’s a sense of getting in on the ground floor with this. It’s one of a suite of superhero books that Boom and Stan Lee are putting out together (There’s a six-page preview of the next one, The Traveller by Mark Waid and Chad Hardin, included in the back of this issue), and I suppose it’s possible that they will all connect in the future in some way, making for a new, modern, well-tended shared universe setting.

Unfortunately, if Soldier Zero boasts several advantages to set it apart from other direct market super-books, it shares at least a few of their weaknesses, including a steep price tag of $3.99 for 22-pages and, if I’m counting right, nine different covers. Three of those are listed by letter, another three are “retailer incentive variants” and then there are three more, at least two of which are apparently exclusive to particular retailers.

I kinda like Paul Rivoche’s Midtown Comics variant cover, but jeez, nine covers promoting speculation (directly or indirectly) can’t possibly be a sign of a healthy direct market…


Eyz said...

Looks like a perfect fun read! :D

KentL said...

Are all of the new Stan Lee books all-ages? I was going to pass on these, but I'm a sucker for books that both my stepson and I can read. May have to watch for the trades.

Caleb said...

Are all of the new Stan Lee books all-ages? I was going to pass on these, but I'm a sucker for books that both my stepson and I can read. May have to watch for the trades.

I don't think they are specifically being marketed as all-ages, or if the intent was to create an all-ages book, or if it just so happened that the resultant book was one that a kid could read without seeing anything that might scar them psychologically.

I haven't read the other ones yet, but I would be kind of surprised if Stan Lee wrote a comic that wasn't family friendly.