Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Inferior Five #1 Review and Spoilers

A Walk On The Weird Side

Written by: Keith Giffen and Jeff Lemire

Art by: Keith Giffen and Michelle Delecki
Colors by: Hi-Fi
Letters by: Rob Leigh
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: September 18, 2019

DC has a distinctly odd publishing strategy at the moment. Its main line of books is… compact. A small inner core of ‘big’ characters’ books continues to be published twice a month; a slightly larger outer core of monthly titles, most of which are connected with that group of ‘big’ books, complements that inner core (I’m including Wonder Comics in this section; they are connected by virtue of being ‘curated’ by the writer of Superman and Action Comics and one of the two main creative forces vying for authorial supremacy in the DC Universe). And then, on the periphery, lurk some weird, quirky books whose reason for existing is not immediately obvious. Last week’s Gotham City Monsters is one such book; this week’s The Inferior Five is another. Let me explain why…

The Inferior Five is set in the off-the-beaten-track Dangerfield, Arizona in a post-Invasion world which has nothing whatsoever to do with the current DC continuity that I can see. To say that this was not a concept people were crying out for is to understate things rather massively. The Invasion event was a child of the late 80s and, although regarded with a certain fondness by some fans, it’s not exactly a classic story. It was, of course, co-written by this series’ co-writer Keith Giffen, and it was one of the crossover events featured in the CW shows in recent years. Are those factors enough to get it greenlit? Possibly, although the presence of Jeff Lemire on co-writing duties probably didn’t hurt either. Given the book’s rather strange setting, I’d argue it should be something very special to justify its existence. Let’s find out if that is, in fact, the case.

The issue starts with a decidedly chilling scene in which a distraught girl is running through a barren desert landscape. It's unclear what exactly is chasing her, but she's clearly scared out of her wits and, in one panel, simply repeats the word 'please' over and over again. She then spies a deeply unsettling-looking figure watching her from underneath a small outcropping of rock and falls to her knees, trying to reason with the child-sized figure wearing a sacking mask with a red 'x' scrawled on it, pleading to be "let… go this time". We're already in creepy-as-anything territory, but things take an even more disturbing turn when the child-thing starts reciting a nursery rhyme and an explosion of some form of energy hits the girl and leaves no trace of her once it clears. As openings to comic series no one actually wants to go, this one's pretty good!

Because man cannot live by profoundly unsettling story openings alone, though, the scene shifts to Dangerfield proper and our main point of view character Justin who dutifully takes on first-person narration duties. There's some nice stuff here. Dad used to talk about "worst case scenarios", but these apparently didn't include him dying in the battle of Metropolis during an alien invasion and his wife taking their son to live in possibly the most dilapidated, decrepit and generally dead place in the United States. (Think the wasteland from Fallout 3, but with slightly more structural integrity and a lot more cacti.) Justin is understandably unimpressed, but a partially overheard phone call involving his mother suggests that there's definitely something underhanded going on here.

Cut to the local comic store (because every town in America has a comic store, obviously) where a small girl called Lisa is reading issue 37 of Invasion and is complaining not only about how poorly written it is, but also that even publishing a comic book based on the Invasion when it actually really happened is in poor taste. (Fans of comic book meta-commentary, feel free to have the long hard think about this that I would have had if it wasn't for the fact that I've got a review to finish.) The comic shop owner is an unfriendly chap called Vlad who may or may not be suffering from unpleasant gum disease, wants Lisa to actually buy something, and is not especially bothered if she never crosses the threshold of his shop again. This may be commentary of another kind. Hmmm…

But, wait, there's more! We get some strange conversational narration from a pair of off-panel characters who seem to be keeping a close eye on Dangerfield and, particularly, a pair of teenagers perusing the local record store (amusingly named 'House of Wax'). It is here that we get the only reference that I could see to the original Inferior Five – when Vance calls Theresa 'Dumb Bunny'. The rest of the issue continues to build up the creep factor with houses covered in red 'x's, Lisa's friend who speaks to her in a weird robotic-like manner, the sacking-masked creepy kid-thing showing up again dragging what would appear to be a corpse in a sack behind him and having a cryptic conversation with a guy (or alien) in a hazmat suit, and much more besides.

Despite this book being out of continuity (there's always the possibility it could jump forward in time, to be fair), deliberately elliptical, and just plain weird, I actually kind of liked it. There's some storytelling skill on display here and there is a definite mystery being laid out for the reader, too. Looking back on it, Lemire and Giffen seem an obvious fit. Both are writer-artists with an eye (and ear, for that matter) for the oddball and the weird and their art styles are similar. Giffen's work here is generally excellent. That opening is extremely effective and the final page has all sorts of creepy stuff going on in it. Lemire's scripting is excellent, too. While the dialogue is a bit too 'back and forth' at times, it conveys character very well, and I ended the issue with a sense of connection to most of the characters and a definite sense of anticipating seeing them again.

The Lemire-drawn (and scripted) Peacemaker back-up is a nice gentle send-up of 80s comics that promises to tie into the main story at some point. I am rather impressed with it, particularly because we get an Ostrander-era Rick Flagg and Amanda Waller discussing the character while he goes about his business.

It would be wrong, though, to see this book as merely an exercise in 80s nostalgia. There's something cleverer (and, certainly, more disturbing) going on here, although I have no real idea what that something maybe. But, that in itself is a selling point for this series. There's a genuine mystery here. Or, rather, a genuine set of mysteries: What's really going on in Dangerfield? How are the various characters we've seen so far linked together? (And there is some evidence to suggest they are.) How does the back-up tie in with the main story? Perhaps more importantly, why did this series get approved for publication and might the very fact that it's been published mean that the story is, eventually, going to tie into the current DC continuity? (Admittedly, given DC's approach to continuity lately, I may be assuming too much here.) So far, the answers are not forthcoming, but there is enough confidence and storytelling ability on display from the creative team to persuade me that we may well get them sooner rather than later. As things stand, this is an intriguing – if far too enigmatic – opening issue. I tentatively approve.

Bits and Pieces:

Lemire and Giffen's story is bizarre, unusual and, in places, downright creepy. My inner skeptic is pointedly reminding me that, in terms of setting, concepts, and cast, this title should be treated with extreme caution, but there's a strange, quirky charm to this book – as well as some deliciously disturbing imagery – and I'm on board for now.


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