Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Unexpected #3 Review and Spoilers

Monster Valley Blues

Written by: Steve Orlando

Art by: Cary Nord and Mark Farmer with Scott Hanna
Letters by: Carlos M Mangual
Colors by: Jeromy Cox
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: August 1, 2018

I liked the first issue of this New Age of Heroes title, but the moment Steve Orlando has to start explaining things is the moment nonsense begins to swarm like flies on a dog turd and so it proved last issue which, shorn of original artist Ryan Sook's vibrant visuals, was nowhere near as entertaining. Orlando's penchant for throwing in obscure continuity references into his stories is quickly becoming legendary in these parts. Will Orlando manage to restrain this instinct and tell a coherent story? You know the drill…

Well, the initial signs aren't great. There are 141 words on the first page. Most of them appear in speech bubbles clustered around the head of June Robbins, Challenger of the Unknown and friend of that blue guy from issue 1, and together they form some backstory for that blue guy from issue 1 about whom Neon got all choked up in issue 2. Which is nice. But also an odd way to start an issue, particularly one that follows on from last month's 'cliffhanger' ending that the Bad Samaritan has been revived by… someone. Or something. Incidentally, if, for some strange reason, you're desperate to know exactly what's been going on with… ahem… BS, you're going to have to wait. He does not appear in this issue.

Because we've got much more important things to do this time around. Like reading a big prolix infodump which tells us that, in its pre-history, the Earth was populated by scientifically advanced blue-skinned Orcks, who built their civilization (perhaps a little short-sightedly) on technology fuelled by a mysterious metal "mined from a fragment of a ruptured planet". This "Uk metal was key to their science". 'Uk metal' is, of course, Nth metal by another name – or at least everyone assumes it is. So, it probably is. I mean, that's how this works, isn't it? We're given a quick run through of how Elligh, June's friend and the blue-skinned chap called the Ascendant we met in issue 1, came to be the last of his kind ("a chronokinetic disaster all but wiped the Orcks from time." Elligh "was in the safe zone" at the time, because he'd started slumming it with pre-humans) and, in the process, Neon and Firebrand are given a place to look for a way of stabilising the Nth Metal Isotope that was serendipitously created (again) two issues ago in that big fight that, at the time, I thought suggested this series might turn out to be an interesting read.

Words can't really describe how godawful these opening pages are. There are attempts to flesh out June's friendship with Elligh, but they're not competent enough to make us care about a character we barely know and they're ultimately swamped by random obscure references ("Ultivac"????) and the writer's obvious desire to explain everything in his typically melodramatic way. Even Nord's artwork isn't that great. We find out that June knew about Elligh's death through an Orckish charm he'd given her, but the large establishing panel at the top of the first page features her beaming at Neon and Firebrand with a broad grin on her face. Perhaps most jarring of all, though, is Neon's sudden lashing out at Firebrand and blaming her for The Ascendant's death. This would be a little more palatable were it not for the fact that Neon's just spent the previous couple of panels speaking in platitudes. It feels, in fact, as if the confrontation has only been inserted into the story to remind the reader about Firebrand's need to fight every 24 hours to stop her heart from exploding, but I'm sure that can't possibly be the case.

Anyway, our heroes head off to Monster Valley. Monster Valley. Where have I heard that before? Sadly, we don't actually get to meet Makson, because, despite the fact Orlando created him and can remember a giant robot that first appeared in Challengers of the Unknown over 60 years ago, he appears to have forgotten about him. Mind you, the valley is probably a pretty big place and, because they locate the secret cache of Orck technology surprisingly easily, Neon and Firebrand don't do much exploring. There then follows a fight between Neon and Firebrand and Onimar Synn which ends spectacularly but is otherwise unimpressively rendered. The art is dynamic but backgrounds are sketchy (the characters are meant to be in an underground bunker at this point – some sense of how claustrophobic or cluttered it is would be useful) and the sense of where the characters are in relation to one another is not always clear. The characters themselves are well-proportioned (Synn looms over Neon and Firebrand rather nicely), but not especially detailed. All in all, for something that is clearly meant to be the set piece of the issue, it's rather disappointing.

Anyway, the issue ends with our heroes teleporting to Gotham (that is, after all, where Challengers' Mountain was relocated during Dark Nights Metal) and the sense that this is going to be an episodic quest story is further reinforced. Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with that kind of storytelling, but when it's done poorly – as here – it can become tedious very quickly. And that, I think, is where we're headed. The last two issues have been structured almost identically – infodump followed by action followed by traveling to the next place. There is, I know, a kind of rip-roaring adventure that could use that structure and run with it, but the characters would have to be better presented, the dialogue sharper, the long-term goals a (hell of a) lot clearer and, at the end of the day, a more concerted effort would have to be made to make the reader care.

Which, I'm sad to say, I no longer do.

Bits and Pieces:

This title is sinking quickly into a morass of melodrama and nonsense. The explanations we need – like just exactly what this Nth Metal Isotope is and what exactly Neon and Firebrand plan to do with it – are frustratingly vague, while the ones we don't – the origin of the Ascendant and the history of his people – are overlong and slow the narrative right down. Nord's artwork has moments but is generally unimpressive this time around and the sense that the whole series is turning into a weird episodic shaggy dog story has become uncomfortably strong. Only better characterization and a clearer sense of purpose can save this series.


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