Review: The Twelve # 1 & 2






Well, it appears there is something of a Golden Age revival going on in the world of comics, what with Superpowers due out from Dynamite by Alex Ross and Jim Kreuger, and the beginning of The Twelve maxi-series over at Marvel Comics. Whatever the reasoning behind this (of course it could well be just pure coincidence), it is an idea that had me intrigued, if not altogether excited – I am deeply nostalgic, so I can certainly understand where the drive to resurrect these long unused characters come from, although they are not ones that I grew up with. Of course, there are many storytelling opportunities associated with dragging these characters into the present day Marvel, but there is also great potential for ‘cheesiness’ to come into play if not handled with maturity and sensitivity.

Of course, J. Michael Straczynski is a highly-regarded writer in modern comics (I think most fans will understand that he played only a minor part in the debacle that was ‘One More Day’), although I have to admit that his work is not something that I am all that familiar with. So, characters and a writer that I don’t know – and heck, I haven’t seen much of Chris Weston’s art either – added to the trepidation that these kinds of stories are pretty difficult to pull off successfully…well, I am ready for anything!

The story starts off in a fairly standard linear fashion, introducing us to the characters that comprise ‘The Twelve’ as they clean up the Nazi resistance in Germany just before the end of World War Two. The narrator for the story is the ‘Phantom Reporter’, one of a handful of the heroes who do not actually possess any powers – this dynamic of a team whose range of powers runs the gamut from the sensational, to the mystical, to the farcical, to none at all, does have potential. This perspective works really well, and Straczynski has a great handle on the tone as an interesting and insightful way to introduce us to the main players; as a reporter, he is naturally inquisitive and allows our understanding of these characters to evolve in an organic way, rather than immediately laying out each life history on the table.

The storyline that pulls this mis-matched group into the present day is simple and not particularly original, but the pacing of the first issue is so strong that this hardly seems to matter. Essentially, the team is trapped in a room, knocked out by some sort of gas, and cryogenically frozen… until of course a building project in the modern day finally unearths them. With that, they are taken in by the Pentagon and asked to continue their role as heroes in the modern day – with the passing of the Superhuman Registration Act (current Marvel continuity is integrated really nicely here), the powers-that-be can see real value in supporting patriotic heroes untainted by events of the past twelve months. Now the stage is set for The Twelve to fight crime, while struggling to find their own place in this ‘alien’ world.

While the approach up to this point has been linear, the remainder of #1, and continuing into #2, sees Straczynski shifting scenes between the present, past and even future. He handles this exceptionally well, driving the story forward while setting up new plot threads and teasing the reader with new mysteries to come – the final scene of #1 is a perfect example of this, providing a fantastic cliff-hanger ending that really sets the tone for the rest of the series.

#2 begins to flesh these characters out further, as they seek to deal with their displacement in a world which has moved on so much in the last 60 years – not just for them, but also for their families. There is very little in the way of solid action up to this point, but at its heart this book is shaping up to be a real character piece rather than a traditional super-hero team book. In terms of creating something new and innovative, this is a real strength of the series so far. Straczynski has already begun to explore a number of grand themes that will hopefully form the back-bone of this adventure: the juxtaposition of hope, dreams and optimism with the reality and politics of the modern world; the changing nature of modern values, whether good or bad (advancements in technology, race relations for example); and an exploration into what makes a ‘hero’ – how do we define a ‘super-hero’ as opposed to a costumed adventurer or vigilante, with or without the use of powers?

However good the writing here is, the success of a series like this hinges just as much on the quality of the visuals in establishing the right tone and portraying a diverse set of characters that do not fit the profile or the style of the current heroes in the Marvel Universe. Step forward Mr. Chris Weston; in my opinion, this book could not have a more perfectly matched artist. Weston has a wonderful eye for detail, rendering these characters in a classic but timeless style. He has a great sense of scale, able to convey the epic as well as the intimate moments that bring a real ‘human’ quality to the page, in a way that perfectly matches the tone of the book. In a team book that often involves the depiction of numerous characters in any one scene, Weston takes the time to ensure that everyone has their own individual presence, traits, and nuances.

This really has the feeling of being a labour of love for the creative team. Admittedly, it is light on action, and not your typical super-hero story, but I think as a concept the book is much stronger for this. If you’d rather see heroes pummelling super-villains across the page, then this probably isn’t for you (and I like a bit of that as much as the next fan); but this is intelligent, thought-provoking work of a really high standard. If Straczynski and Weston can keep this level up, then The Twelve is all set to be one of the comic-book successes of 2008.