Saturday, December 22, 2007

Marvel's teen spirit: New Warriors & The Loners

I was only a sporadic reader of the seminal original New Warriors series by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley (and later Evan Skolnick and Patrick Zircher) in the '90s, but got really into it in the last few years, and have since amassed just about an entire run of the 75-issue series; I also read Jay Faerber's ill-fated and short-lived 1999 relaunch, and the 2005 mini-series by Zeb Wells and Skottie Young that recast the team as reality-TV stars. I always liked how the series rescued sort of unloved teen characters from various corners of the Marvel universe and threw them all into one big pot. Over the years the original series featured a huge number of characters, and it turned into sort of general hangout for teen misfits, and a good depiction of growing up and into late adolescence. Back when I would have fantasies of being a comic-book writer, I would always imagine relaunching the New Warriors, with some of the old characters mentoring a set of outcast teen characters who'd been neglected in Marvel's recent comics.

Recently Marvel's published two comics that take the original Warriors concept in two very different directions. Kevin Grevioux's relaunch of the actual Warriors series, with art by Paco Medina, carries a fairly tenuous connection to the original series; it's a spin-off mostly of the Civil War and House of M crossovers, with the only returning member being leader Night Thrasher, now apparently revealed to be the brother of the old Night Thrasher, who was killed in Civil War (the brother was once known as Bandit and was a team member for a while during the first series). C.B. Cebulski's The Loners series (with art by Karl Moline), a spin-off of Runaways, is more along the lines of what I would have hoped for a present-day Warriors series: It moves forward from the teen-hero adventures to follow its characters as they adjust to life in their early 20s. Former Warriors Turbo and Darkhawk join other grown-up teen heroes including ex-Slinger Ricochet, Julie Power of Power Pack, the third Spider-Woman and the very obscure heroic version of the Green Goblin in trying to leave their superhero days behind and grow up.

Really, both of these approaches are potentially interesting ones for the Warriors; the team always had a tradition of embracing new members and helping young people with powers find a home and a support system. That was one of the best things about the original series. The problem with Grevioux's series is not that it is full of obscure and unfamiliar characters, or even that its connection to the Warriors' history is tenuous (and with the Night Thrasher plot thread, Grevioux indicates that he hasn't abandoned the old continuity entirely). The problem is that Grevioux can't take his new approach and make it stand on its own as an interesting story; the entire first six-issue arc has been based on the mystery of who is in the Night Thrasher costume, and who are in the other costumes, since all of the other team members are mutants who were depowered during House of M and have now taken on new superhero identities and are using technology to replace their lost powers.

Grevioux's pacing is maddeningly slow; it's ridiculous that it took until the last pages of issue six before there was even a hint at who Night Thrasher might be, and each issue has featured a basically uninteresting fight sequence (with decent but unexceptional art by Medina) and some incremental development in the investigation into who the team is by a pair of detectives and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The main character has for the most part been a former New Mutants member named Sofia, and her agonizing over whether to join the team has been the thread of the first arc. Typical team-gathering story elements, including a moment of crisis, an early loss and the introductions of all the characters to each other, have been spread out over six issues, and Grevioux's eight new team members have done little to distinguish themselves. When they all finally revealed their actual identities in the sixth issue, I could barely connect each old identity to each new one. They all basically run together, and Jubilee and Chamber are the only characters who had enough backstory before the series to give them any of the distinction that Grevioux has failed to provide. Jubilee at least was revealed early on and allowed to interact with Sofia; Chamber, who's had his own solo mini-series and a whole interesting history over a number of years, has gotten barely a handful of lines over six issues.

Teen characters in comics have always been a little tough to write, but Grevioux seems to be trying so hard to capture the attitude and vernacular of young people that his dialogue comes off as painful and forced, full of awkward uses of slang and really stilted banter. (Check out this awful line from issue six: "You got wax in your ears? Dog said he was done. Outta here like a reindeer. Hit and split like a model kit. Y'know what I'm sayin'?") Even the adult cop characters talk in this sort of overly stylized hipster-speak that's at best distracting and at worst laughable. None of them sounds like a real person, and the dialogue (even when it's sometimes meant to be humorous) doesn't illustrate any personality other than the writer's. After six issues, I don't feel like I know any of these people or what's important to them, and I can't care about whether they live or die (when one character actually did die in the fourth issue, I had no idea which one it was). The cast is too big, and the writing is too weak to keep track of them all. Nicieza sometimes had huge lineups in the old series, but each character always came from their own unique place. Not so here. If the pacing were better, I might be willing to stick around to see if the characters develop further, but at this point I imagine it'll take another six issues just for them to find any worthwhile villains to fight.

The Loners has its own pacing problems, and occasional dialogue problems, but overall it's a much stronger series, one that has the same emotional drama mixed in with superheroics that marked Nicieza's Warriors work, and one that similarly takes neglected characters and proves that interesting stories can be told about them. The main problem is that while it's a six-issue mini, Cebulski structures it like the first issues of an ongoing series, and packs in a lot more developments and changes in direction than Grevioux does in the same amount of time. Which would be great as the opening salvo of an ongoing, but for a story that's meant to have a defined beginning, middle and end (even if it leaves the potential open for more), it's a little unsatisfying. The status quo is completely shaken up by the end, and there are are dangling subplots just left hanging. It makes me eager to read the next issue, except there isn't a next issue.

Cebulski has talked many times about his grand future plans for these characters, which is great, except he may not ever get to realize them, and in the meantime he hasn't exactly offered a satisfying end to the one story he got to tell. That aside, I did enjoy this series far more than Grevioux's, and that's because Cebulski seems to care more about his characters, and is much better at making them seem real, unique and whole. Their interactions are fraught with genuine emotion, if sometimes soap-operatic, but effective soap opera is one of the greatest strengths of ongoing superhero comics, really, and one reason why I wish Jay Faerber had gotten more of a chance to keep going with his Warriors series (he does great superhero soap opera in Noble Causes). The Loners also has better action sequences (courtesy of artist Moline) that are more central to what's going on in the story, rather than just tacked on to fill a quota, as they often seem in New Warriors.

New Warriors has sold much better than The Loners, thanks no doubt to its big "The Initiative" banner on each issue, and its recognizable brand name, so it'll be continuing for the foreseeable future, even if I won't be reading it (unless they hire a new writer, that is). Despite Cebulski's tireless online campaigning, The Loners looks to be pretty much dead, aside from an appearance in last week's Marvel Holiday Special (which I neglected to pick up). If the team came back, even under another writer (as long as it wasn't Grevioux), I'd give them a shot. Honestly, though, I thought the Warriors legacy was in better hands with both Jay Faerber and Zeb Wells, and it's a shame that, at least for now, the team is locked up in a crossover, tangling with the big guns when they were always best as misfits, looking on from the sidelines.

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