Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Unexpected #2 Review and Spoilers

Trying To Make Amends

Written by: Steve Orlando
Art by: Cary Nord and Wade von Grawbadger
Letters by: Carlos M Mangual
Colors by: Jeromy Cox
Release Date: July 4, 2018
Cover Price: $3.99

This series surprised me last month. That first issue was a rip-roaring full tilt ride into multidimensional madness and it was populated by a range of interesting new characters who, although they spoke with the overblown idiom of most Steve Orlando creations, nevertheless managed to intrigue the hell out of me. That half of them were dead by the end of the issue seemed to me to be a bold statement of intent from the creative team. Put bluntly, these guys are not messing around. The question is… where do we go from here? For once, I have no actual idea. And I kind of like that. Buckle up then, pilgrims. It's going to be a bumpy ride. Probably…

The issue starts where last issue's left off – the ruins of a New Jersey VA Hospital and the two people left standing in them, walking Nth Metal-hearted engine of aggression Firebrand and emo matter-transmuting blind magician Neon. Having witnessed (and been partially responsible for) the deaths of his teammates, Neon is in a fog of shock and self-recrimination. Which is a problem – both for Firebrand and this reader, who would quite like answers as soon as is humanly possible, thank you. Fortunately, the poor guy pulls himself together long enough to provide us with a handy backstory.

Neon, it turns out, was a Burnside performance artist, (Marina "spirit cooking" Abramovic gets a name check here, which is decidedly weird) who ends up performing a magic rite that not only kills his entourage of bright young things and hangers-on, but also gives him a glimpse of the World Forge, a glimpse that costs him his sight. But he does get the power to transmute pretty much anything into pretty much anything else. Which is ludicrously handy and extremely powerful. Until it isn't, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

This all sounds fairly fine, I suppose, apart from Orlando's rushed, somewhat breathless narration and Neon's self-indulgence. It would have been worth, for example, seeing the rite that granted Neon his powers in a bit more detail, particularly his reaction to the deaths of his friends which seems to have been the catalyst for his turn away from hedonism towards heroism. Instead, there's far more telling than showing in his story and the absence of important information is glossed over. Who, for example, promised Neon that he'd be shown "the source of all creation"?  That he engages in the rite because of a creative block makes sense, but his teaming up with others to "balance out" the deaths of his groupies seems an odd way of trying to make amends, particularly as his teammates keep on dying. His "did I win?" sounds pathetic (which is, I think, precisely the effect Orlando is going for) and also a bit selfish.

Fortunately for us, what is shaping up to be a bit of a less than dignified wallow in self-pity is cut short by the arrival of New Jersey's finest and the pair must teleport away back to Neon's apartment. (The kisses he gives the corpses of both Ascendant and the Viking Judge are, to be fair, heartfelt and rather moving.) Cue another fill-in-the-blanks-with-nonsense conversation, but not before we get to see Onimar Synn communicating with Phade, his alien general whose ability to be both present and not present at the same time (I have some students with a very similar power set) is useful when investigating the sites of recent multi-dimensional activity. While she scours the ruins of the hospital and indulges in some elliptical but nevertheless dramatic dialogue, Synn reveals in a moment of characteristic Orlando clumsiness that his body is growing "Nth metal-deficient" and thus will not be able to hold "the souls [he] consumes within [his] bones". This doesn't stop him snacking on a nearby Manhawk, although he does manage to mangle what could otherwise have been a rather nice piece of dialogue in the process. I guess without that whole soul absorption thing, even the most eloquent of galactic dictators can become a little flat.

The conversation between Neon and Firebrand has some nice ideas. Firebrand's medical training provides useful metaphors for the way she deals with Neon, but they're not especially subtle. "I know this hurts, but this is triage. I spent years in the Emergency Room. You work through things because you have to…" Erm… okay. I guess. Really, this is typical Orlando. A rough idea (Firebrand's an ER nurse; she'll approach Neon's trauma in a methodical way) is thrown into the dialogue with little thought given to how to actually make it work. No polish, no subtlety – it's just out there. (Orlando's not the only DC writer who suffers from this, btw.) That the focus of their conversation is a smoking chunk of metal that we barely get to see is another problem. It's present throughout the scene but, despite being talked about constantly (it turns out that the metal won't respond to Neon's powers), it's rarely the focus of the art.

Speaking of which… Farewell, Ryan Sook, I guess. That two-thirds of an issue you gave us was pretty damned impressive. While I like Nord and von Grawbadger as replacements, their art is nowhere near as detailed or as dynamic. The 'wow factor' that was present in those early first issue pages just isn't here now. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering just what the point of DC making a big deal out of artists for their New Age of Heroes line was. It's almost as if the company doesn't really know what it's doing, but I'm sure that can't be the case. Can it?

Anyhow, there's a fight. Which is good, because we haven't had one of those yet. This one is very fighty and features Neon, Phade, Firebrand and a bunch of disposable reanimated Manhawks. Although Nord and von Grawbadger do a particularly good job of portraying Firebrand's loss of control, there's a crude, rushed feel to a lot of the art here and it's hard not to feel just a little bit disappointed. Throw in a 'shock' ending that, without proper context, manages to be both flat and a little jarring and that, as they say, is that. (Oh, I forgot the throwaway New Challengers/DC One Million reference. There's a throwaway New Challengers/DC One Million reference. For those of you who like that sort of thing.)

So, what to make of all that? Despite Neon and Firebrand remaining intriguing and well fleshed out characters, much of this issue falls neatly into the "nice try, but…" category. Despite my protestations about his dialogue, I actually admire Orlando in some ways. His imagination is suitably big and ambitious, and some of his character work actually pays off here. The problem is that the dialogue drags us down into a morass of verbiage that tends to slow the plot and give the characters an awkward stiltedness that means you're never allowed to forget that you're reading a comic book. Where all this is headed I still don't know. The difference between this issue and last is simply that I don't care as much now. And that's a shame, because the potential for this series is plain to see. I can only hope that Orlando and team can find a way to improve things as the series develops.

Bits and Pieces:

After an intriguing and bombastic first issue, this one is at least partly the inevitable catching of breath, a pause that unfortunately allows Orlando to indulge his worst instincts for clunky dialogue and exposition that is rushed when it could be more leisurely and ponderous when it could be lighter on its feet. The absence of Sook is a problem. Nord and von Grawbadger are good artists, but the dip in quality is noticeable. These new characters remain interesting and reasonably well-developed, but the story needs to pick itself back up and get moving again.


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