Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Unexpected #1 Review and Spoilers

Open Your Heart To Me, Baby!

Written by: Steve Orlando
Art by: Ryan Sook, Cary Nord, Wade von Grawbadger, and Mick Gray
Letters by: Carlos M Mangual
Colors by: FCO Plascencia
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: June 6, 2018

The Unexpected? Hmmm… It's difficult not to allow one's prior experiences with a writer or artist to affect your expectations when their name appears on the front of a new book. Steve Orlando has some strengths (his imagination appears to be appropriately large and insane for a comic book writer, for a start), but it's safe to say that I've tended to feel his weaknesses outweigh them. So what should I expect from The Unexpected? A plot is driven by melodramatically delivered infodumps and glaring nonsequiturs? Cack-handed dialogue that would make Edward ("It was a dark and stormy night…") Bulwer-Lytton blush all the way down to his bushy sideburns? Or will the unexpected really happen and Orlando deliver a 'new age of heroes' book that thrills, intrigues and hooks the reader just like comic books should? You know, there really is only one way to find out…

Well, you've got to like that cover. Four characters we've never seen before looking extraordinarily badass and just… good. Even if one of them appears to be an emo Doctor Strange. Open the comic book and you've got a couple of intriguing splash pages featuring a weird guy wearing shades and a cowboy hat that appears to have an eldritch (oh, come on! I've been wanting to use the word 'eldritch' in a review for ages!) eye staring out of it, and the really rather terrifying Barbatos-transformed Hawkman. I've only read one other 'new age of heroes' book so far, but this one already seems to be more closely linked to Metal than The Terrifics. Which, I think, is probably a good thing.

Once we get into the comic proper, we get some Ryan Sook art and, lordy, it is magnificent. That opening panel of new girl Firebrand cleaning Killer Croc's clock positively pops and pulses with the kind of comic book violence that sends this reviewer all a dither. And the dialogue… the dialogue… Actually, the dialogue is pure Orlando. From "I could be drinking my way to bad decisions" to a conversation with the bartender about how many fights she's had this month ("who's counting" Firebrand says, but it turns out that if she doesn't fight someone at least once every 24 hours her artificial heart will explode, so the answer is "her" I guess? I mean, she really should be counting), Orlando's Firebrand is a walking, talking (well screaming, really) action movie cliché machine. 

So, it's just fantastic that Orlando decides to have her narrate her backstory for us. The thing is, I'm actually quite partial to cheese so, along with some over the top gorgeous Sook artwork, this section works surprisingly well for me. Orlando and Sook give us a potted history of Janet "Firebrand" Fals and its highlights include references to the two Darkseid invasions, Blackest Night and, of course, Metal. Props to Orlando for a pretty effective – and economical – job of cementing this book into the wider DC Universe. The story of her heart is explained with a series of savage images from Sook and narration from Orlando that is suitably lurid. And cheesy. "For years I gave my heart to the job. Until one day my job took it." is, for example, a pair of sentences that flirts perilously close with self-parody, but just about manages to stay on the right side of the dividing line between silly and hard-boiled dry narration.  A different kind of writer might have preferred to let the reader find out about Firebrand's history more gradually and organically rather than in a cheesily-narrated infodump, but this is Orlando on steroids and, possibly, speed and he's got a heck of a story to tell.

Having been a paramedic before being brought back to life by a shadowy technological company from whom she's escaped, Janet, it turns out, works at a local VA Hospital under the alias of Ronan, a male name (Janet's probably gay) that the issue's big bad points out sounds a lot like Ronin, the name given to masterless samurai in feudal Japan and also, perhaps not coincidentally, the title of Frank Miller's first DC limited series. This, actually, is one of the things that I do like about Orlando's scripts. As much as they are sometimes ponderous and clunky and excessively melodramatic, they seem to constitute a geeky stream of consciousness that doesn't always make an awful lot of sense but occasionally manages to be tremendously entertaining. Orlando as the comics James Joyce? Hmmmm…

But I digress.

Firebrand's cover gets blown by Bad Samaritan, a cosmic/mystical bad guy with a penchant for cowboy chic and, perhaps, the films of Burt Reynolds, who wants to steal our girl's heart. Literally, obviously. And then other superpowered people show up and a fight takes place that threatens the structural integrity of the hospital. There's some nice characterization here, including Firebrand's insistence that the new arrivals take some responsibility for the chaos they've been causing, and Orlando making it clear that the newcomers don't really get on. (And not a "powderkeg" in sight, either.) There are also some nice throwaway references to various 'dark' Earths that evil Burt has apparently had a hand in destroying. Evil Burt really is, apparently, very evil.

By the end of the comic, the action in the hospital is over and we appear to be headed for the kind of multiversal madness that "the new age of heroes" is meant to be about. The pace has been frenetic, the dialogue silly and the art (despite an artist change about two thirds into the book) dramatic and, at times, extraordinary. Most of all, though, Orlando has successfully introduced us to some new characters that, dammit, I actually want to know more about. Job, as they say, done. Well, more or less…

In pushing the plot forward at breakneck speed, Orlando relies perhaps a little too much on characters explaining things to one another at certain points and at others not enough. The build-up to the revelation of the evil mastermind behind evil Burt's evil actions is impressively dramatic, but the reveal itself is rather underwhelming to anyone but, I suspect, the more excitable Hawkman fans out there. In addition, a big question mark hangs over Orlando's capacity to write a story that features Metal-esque multiversal shenanigans and keep the whole thing clear and coherent, but, for now, I would have to say that I've really rather enjoyed this. So…

Bits and Pieces:

This is a surprisingly good opening to a series for which I had no particular enthusiasm whatsoever. My misgivings about Orlando's writing remain, but here he appears to have found a natural vehicle for his penchant for melodramatic dialogue, full tilt storytelling, and villains whose threat level is off the scale. This is Orlando gonzo – brash, excessive, palpably insane and very entertaining. Throw in some gorgeous artwork and it's entirely possible to overlook the signs of incoherence at the end of the issue and just revel in the madness. I fully expect the whole thing to come off the rails at some point in the near future, but for now, I'm definitely in. Now that's unexpected.



  1. I was expecting to hate this book and as I started reading it I feared I was right BUT i actually ended up liking it and I want to know what the heck is going on. Will it last? Probably not but I hope I enjoy the following issues as much.

    1. Lol...i cant wait to read it now

    2. Bobbie, that is pretty much how I felt on reading it. I'd read the preview and hadn't been overly impressed, but the whole issue just felt like fun to me. Silly fun and slightly ropey fun, but fun all the same. :)

    3. I actually enjoyed this books too. I am super surprised by this as I hate nearly everything Steve Orlando has ever done with the exception of the Midnighter and Apollo mini.

  2. I can't Bring myself to see any positives in this book. This was the first book of these new wave of heroes that has lost me by the first issue. Why! Why do I have a book of convoluted nothing, but no shazam book. Why is this book going to be reviewed on the world's great podcast instead of an issue of injustice. This book doesn't deserve to exist.

    1. I can see where you're coming from. It's frenetic, features new characters that it may be a bit difficult to identify with at first (although I'd argue that Firebrand is actually a pretty well-realised character) and features Orlando's trademark dialogue which can often be awkward or just plain bad. It's entirely possible that my experience of reading Orlando's stuff (The Shadow/Batman, JLA in particular) has conditioned me to expect the execrable and I'm overreacting to something that actually isn't as bad as I was expecting it to be. We'll have to see how things pan out.

      Your broader point about DC's editorial policy when it comes to the launching of new books is one I can definitely understand, though. There are a number of titles that we really *should* have by now (and Shazam is one of them). I do like the idea of new characters, but we really could do with some of those long-awaited titles finally appearing over the horizon. I can only assume that their prolonged absence (and I'm thinking specifically of JSA, LSH and Shazam here) is Doomsday Clock-related.

    2. I doubt Shazam! will ever work, he just isn't that interesting for the general public to carry a solo book. Even Geoff Johns couldn't make it work.