Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"It's not too late to stop. Simply close this magazine. Seal it in plastic and never open it again!"
"No? Still here? Very well... There is no turning back now. Welcome then..."
Jeff! Why did I doubt you?! This is the best opening salvo to a superhero series I have read in a very long time. At least two Marvel non-reboots and a DC existential Crisis... I guess perhaps I was just a touch underwhelmed by PLUTONA which never really seemed to find its feet and I foolishly expected this to be more of the same. I'm currently enjoying his OLD MAN LOGAN and finding his MOON KNIGHT brilliantly baffling for Marvel, but this is on an entirely different level.
Basically because he's entirely freed from their corporate constraints to get really out there with the capes and tights genre in terms of his typical cast of emotionally tortured characters á la ESSEX COUNTY, DESCENDER and his new monthly ROYAL CITY. It therefore has far more in comparison with the likes of Kurt Busiek's ASTRO CITY with Jeff's own prodigious talent for writing imperfectly formed people whisked into the mix. I note Charles Soule has commented in a pull quote on the rear cover that this "... feels like a superhero story through an X-Files lens: it's strange and melancholy and real." I think that's an excellent, very accurate summation.
Here Jeff's constructed a team of dysfunctional superheroes and villains stuck out in the literal, metaphorical and possibly metaphysical boondocks on a tiny farm on the outskirts of a remote, rural American small town. Well, town is pushing it, frankly. It's little more than a farming community. And when I say stuck, I really mean stuck, STRANGEHAVEN-style. Our gang of bickering chums have been desperately trying to leave for the last ten years without success, mysteriously confined to their utterly dull locale, forced to live entirely in their secret identities. Well, those of them that can pass for human, that is; the others are forced to spend their days cooped out of sight in the barn...
So who are they and how did they land there from their hallowed home of Spiral City? Well, each one of them is a pastiche of / homage to a classic character, or composites thereof. Golden Gail, now pension age, but forever young as a nine-year-old girl having to go to school to keep up appearances is a nod to Mary Batson of the Shazam family. Markkon Markken the Barbalien, Warlord from Mars, firmly in the closet and masquerading as a human police detective will be instantly recognisable as the classic original J'onn J'onzz, Martian Manhunter. Puny Abraham Slam, transformed into a Super Soldier by allied scientists, well I bet you can guess... And so it goes roguishly, lovingly on.
How they got to the back of beyond, and then some, was as a result of yet another selfless act of daring-do, facing down the near omnipotent Anti-God (think Darkseid, basically!) in a climatic showdown in the very heart of Spiral City. During which they - and several villains who, realising the seriousness of the situation, also pitched in to help - were presumed to have been totally obliterated. Including their leader, Joseph Weber, the titular Black Hammer... However, there are those in Spiral City who steadfastly believe the supes are merely missing and haven't given up hope of their eventual triumphant return. Not all of our gang of exiles share their confidence, mind you, which isn't perhaps surprising after a decade of despair.
Thus for most of them, it's like being trapped in a living hell, though some like Abraham Slam, playing the grandfatherly role of the head of household, are even beginning to find some degree of happiness within the confines of their current existence. What is a total puzzle, mind, is the whereabouts of Black Hammer himself, who is neither with his colleagues nor in Spiral City. Now given he is clearly meant to be a homage to Thor, and thinking very specifically about one of mighty Mjölnir's powers, let's just say I have a theory about precisely where he, and they, might be...
Barnsley's finest, Dean BODIES / NORTHLANDERS / LUCIFER Ormston, is apparently someone Jeff has wanted to work with for a while since seeing his stint on BOOKS OF MAGICK: LIFE DURING WARTIME (really would like that to be recollected). His fine, flicky lines, which in my sliding scale of artists seems to sit somewhere just between Faryl THE WRENCHIES Dalrymple and Guy BPRD Davis, are perfect for this unsettling tale. As ever, colourist Dave Stewart, then applies his own vibrant brand of spectral genius to finish the pages off to perfection. I'm tempted to go as far as to say, if you only read one superhero title currently, make it this one.