Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Unexpected #8 Review and Spoilers

Let's Get (Meta) Physical…

Written by: Steve Orlando
Art by: Ronan Cliquet
Colours by: Jeromy Cox
Letters by: Carlos M Mangual with Travis Lanham
Cover Price: $2.99
Release Date: January 9, 2019

I like Steve Orlando. I know that may come as something of a shock given the amount of shade I tend to throw his way (and I'm writing this before I've read this week's Martian Manhunter), but, reading this final issue of one of the more confusing and ridiculous DC titles of recent years, it strikes me that, of all the DC writers out there, Orlando has a conception of what superhero comics should be about most in keeping with my own. That doesn't mean his titles are suddenly brilliant, of course, but it's worth pointing out all the same. At its heart, The Unexpected is a bona fide redemption story. That it takes place in the context of largely silly multiversal shenanigans is unfortunate, but it's still worth acknowledging what Orlando's trying to achieve. Allow me to (try to) explain…

In last month's issue, Mandrakk killed Neon and Alden ("The Bad Samaritan") Quench, leaving an inexperienced Firebrand and a pissed off Hawkman to fight the Monitor-turned-multiversal vampire all on their own. The action is taking place on the Monitors' homeworld Nil, which, as far as I understand it, is the staging point between 'our' multiverse and the 'dark' multiverse in which, I think, Mandrakk has been imprisoned all this time. (Well, since Final Crisis. Again, I think.) This is high concept stuff and, as with all high concept stuff, is inherently wonky and challenging for the reader to get his head around. Artist and writer have their work cut out to make big, largely abstract concepts solid and believable for the reader. (In a way, the fact that Perez was such a meticulous artist worked in Crisis On Infinite Earths' favour, but I digress.) How do Orlando and Ronan Cliquet manage here?

Well, Nil is a ruined crimson-skied shell of a world, which sounds pretty cool until you realise that the action of both this issue and the previous one has taken place on a small patch of ground that gives the reader very little sense of what the rest of the world might be like. Our characters are rendered distinctly and are different enough from one another both visually and linguistically that confusing them isn't an issue. The revelation that Neon and Quench are dead but some part of them lingers on in the World Forge itself is potentially interesting, but raises more questions than Orlando is prepared to answer. From a narrative point of view, making that revelation on a page in which Neon and Quench have a conversation in what appears to be a river of fire is just silly. Dramatic, but silly. Given what we know of the World Forge from Metal, that this pair of admittedly powerful but still mortal superbeings is able to chat about the nature of their relationship with one another without any apparent pain, discomfort or, I don't know, multiversal annihilation seems a bit ridiculous.

But, then, the whole thing is ridiculous. Neon's rejection of the creation-destruction opposition that Steve Orlando only made clear a couple of issues ago is, on the one hand, kind of cool, but, on the other hand, is so sudden that it gives a distinct impression that the writer might just be making this up as he goes along. The idea that the World Forge is operating as a short-term purgatory before the absolute annihilation of, well, wherever "down" leads to is, again, intriguing, but Orlando's not interested in fleshing out the metaphysical implications of all this, because he's got a highly improbable redemption tale to tell. 

That said, Neon's attempt to save Quench is heroic in a sense of the word that I've seen too little of in recent comics. And that Quench rejects his initial offer is a nice touch that grounds the comic in the kind of believability that the rest of the narrative has inadvertently undermined. At least, Quench is being true to his already established character. Unfortunately, while the build-up to the moment in which he accepts Neon's offer is, although overly wordy, generally well-handled, the transition from flailing about in the World Forge to the pair's resurrection on Nil is so abrupt I thought my review copy might have missed the page. Assuming it hasn't, I can't help feeling… cheated.

Neon and Quench's physical return to life is rendered beautifully by Cliquet, but Orlando is, once again, struggling with the concepts he wants to play with. When Neon says "what's created cannot be destroyed. And art… doesn't burn" there is a truth being uttered about the durability of art and the power of the creative act that has the potential to be quite profound. That profundity is obscured, however, by the bombastic tone of the dialogue and the easily disproved literal meaning of Neon's words. That art absolutely can be destroyed should be obvious to anyone who's played with matches in an art gallery or saved something precious to a later-corrupted flash drive. What we're left with is a sentiment with which I can agree being expressed in a manner with which I can't. In that sense, this one line of dialogue might be as perfect a representation of this comic series as you're ever likely to find.

The book ends in a way that does, in fact, validate the power of creative (and generous) transformation over selfish destruction. Neon's 'saving' of Mandrakk, his uneasy reconciliation with Quench and his later restoration of Firebrand's hospital all resonate with this reader at any rate very strongly. They are ultimately hopeful acts and, Lord knows, we've not really had a lot of that from DC comics lately. Firebrand, too, gets a nice coda to her character 'arc' and the book ended with me actually feeling rather positive about it.

That's a reaction that hasn't really been earned, though. Undoubtedly, part of the sudden speeding up of characterization and plot we've seen over the last couple of issues is due to the early cancellation of the book. Although Orlando's done a decent job of tying things up here, this issue would have been much more effective if the relationship between Quench and Neon had been properly explored much earlier on, if Firebrand hadn't faded into the background halfway through the series and if Neon, who has the potential to be a truly significant character in the wider DC Universe, had been someone who had been more thoroughly and thoughtfully established from the start. 

It's for these reasons that, as much as I admire Orlando's vision and his commitment to an ideal of heroism with which I can wholeheartedly agree, I can't ever recommend this book. With stronger characterisation holding things together, the episodic nature of the book could have worked. As it stands, it's a breathless and too frequently ridiculous chase narrative fuelled by a plot maguffin that's too small to be visually effective and, the bold apocalyptic pronouncements of Neon notwithstanding, simply not dangerous enough to be dramatic. (Seeing the Nth metal isotope having some kind of effect beyond bold coloured rays of light would have helped here.) The changing art team simply helped reinforce the idea that DC doesn't (didn't) care about this book.

Bits and Pieces:

A surprisingly warm and heartfelt ending can't disguise this series' significant flaws and failings. This ending may have been clearer and more entertaining than recent issues, but the writer's lack of finesse in expressing big concepts (particularly through dialogue) continues to make reading more of a chore than a joy. Cliquet's art is good and, in two particular instances, poster-worthy, but the impression of the title as a garish muddle of mostly flat characterization and histrionic incident remains.



  1. I believe that Batman and Superman were trapped in this same Forger River place in Dark Metal but cannot remember how they got out (SPOILERS).

    Quench who is empowered by the Fires of Destruction from deep within the World Forge, is a fascinating character. Which must mean that Neon is empowered by the Fire of Creation from deep within the World Forge. I'm assuming that "what's created cannot be destroyed. And art… doesn't burn" is a reference to Neon's power in which he can only change things and not destroy or create.

    Of course Manship absolutely loved this series, though not nearly as much as he loves hearing J Daw talk about it in his Orlando Zone. Just like Telos, Manship will neve stop searching/hoping for the return of Neon, Quench, and Firebrand!!

  2. Thank you, Manship!

    The fires of creation, fires of destruction thing is a very interesting concept. Neon's powers do not allow him to create anything ex nihilo; they are, as you rightly point out, transformative - as all art is. The artist transforms his/her base materials into something beautiful or profound, I suppose. The problem with The Unexpected is that too much of the time Neon's powers operate like an overpowered Firestorm's and the notion of artistry is lost as a result. A different writer might have explored that in more detail.

    Weirdly enough, I totally agree with you on wanting to see Neon, Quench and Firebrand again. They're characters with tons of potential and, in the hands of a different writer, could be a lot of fun.

    I'm glad you're enjoying the OZ. I'm currently holed up in bed with a horrible bug of some kind, so I may not get it done this week. It may have to be put back a week.

    1. Great point Jeremy, very curious what this book would have looked like if written by a different writer. Perhaps we will get a taste if(when) another writer brings these characters back.

      No worries J Daw, we will enjoy your OZ when you get healthy!