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Trouble with Comics, Daily Breakdowns 081 - The Shield

Daily Breakdowns 081 - The Shield

The Shield #1-8

Writers - Eric Trautmann, Brandon Jerwa

Artists - Marco Rudy, Greg Scott, Cliff Richards, Michael Avon Oeming

Publisher - DC Comics

Something I’ve been meaning to do is just take a contemporary series and run through the first year, give or take. I must admit, I do have a soft spot for the second tier superhero books, the ones about B-and-C-listers who will likely never have huge commercial success. One reason I tend to give books like this a chance is that they generally are less reliant on past continuity. It would be hard to name five Iron Fist villains or the five best Booster Gold stories, so why shouldn’t the current creative teams feel free to come up with something new? Which brings me to the second reason I give books like this a shot, which is that you often find creators trying things out, sometimes displaying a more personal identification with their heroes than they do later, when they’re established. The third reason is, these out-of-the-way sorts of books can sometimes be a little more self-contained.

That doesn’t always hold true, though. I didn’t pay much attention when DC announced a relaunch of the Red Circle characters into a few new series, and I avoided the J. Michael Straczynski-scripted one-shots(re)introducing each characterissues for each title because that seemed like a cynical gimmick. Why have a famous name write these initial stories and then hand the series off to other, lesser-known talents? If there was a story Straczynski really felt like telling, one would think he’d want to stay on, right? S

The first issue establishes one Lt. Joe Higgins as the new Shield, an Army soldier chosen to be a combination of Captain America and Iron Man. He’s in a patriotic “cutting edge” warsuit that can do just about anything he needs it to, and there’s plenty of military and technical jargon—suit efficiency at 82%, hand-to-hand combat protocols engaged, etc.—for those who like that sort of thing. 

Combining Captain America and Iron Man is a fine idea but the execution is off. Lt. Higgins, our hero, is pretty dull, a straight shooter soldier who seems to have no interior life and not much personality. Aside from performing the missions given to him, he wants to find his missing father, and he’s a little suspicious about his boss, General Latham. But aside from a nice scene in the first issue, where he tries to win the hearts of some Kahndaqi children by handing out superhero comic books (DC characters, of course), it’s hard to get a feel for his personality beyond the fact he’s not a bloodthirsty soldier. He doesn’t give Cap-like speeches, but his occasional attempts at one-liners during fights are ham-handed and unbelievably redundant (when beating someone/something, he has made three variations on a “void your warranty” joke, which I have to call as a tic of Trautmann’s and a lack of attention from editor Rachel Gluckstern. You don’t read the script and send an email asking for a different line? And sometimes, Trautmann seems to put a joke in because it sounds like an ironic superhero line, without thinking about if it makes any sense. Example: Shield tells headquarters he’ll be “entertain(ing) our guests,” when the prior issue had established that he’s the one out of place, causing an incident on Chinese property in Brazil. He’s the guest/intruder. 

I will give Trautmann the benefit of the doubt that his take on The Shield as being a soldier rather than a superhero was heading towards something before the title was cancelled. Likes like, “And there’s nothing tougher to beat than an American soldier with a weapon” sound crass, but the first story arc, with Shield trying to rescue missing soldiers from a DC Middle East country called Kahndaq (a reference to Jenette Kahn?) at least presented a character with an anti-American viewpoint who wasn’t a villain. He was just a boy who had seen too many of his people dead because of American interference. It might have been an interesting direction to follow, the super-soldier carrying out orders that increasingly ate at his conscience. But that’s not where the book goes.

Instead, and I can’t believe this was Trautmann’s idea, The Shield runs into a number of minor DC superheroes, none of which would give him a sales boost. Sure, it’s understandable he would work with The Web quickly, and later run into new versions of The Jaguar and The Comet—they’re all old Red Circle characters, too. But Magog? The Great Ten? 

The Magog issues were part of the aforementioned story set in Kahndaq, Magog (a character I don’t really know) portrayed as an obnoxious, kill ‘em all jarhead, contrasting with Shield’s compassionate, levelheaded and resourceful approach. Well, sort of resourceful. When you get past all the technobabble, most of The Shield’s plans are really simplistic. To get into the fortress where he thinks the captured soldiers are, he takes off his nanosuit (it’s there but looks like regular clothes), gives himself up, and of course is taken to the leader, a mind-controller who is in turn being controlled by Gorilla Grodd. And look, if your first story arc has a team-up with Magog against Gorilla Grodd, then this is probably not a book that’s going to last.

The next storyline involves The Shield trying to recover some technology in Brazil that has fallen into the hands of one Baron Gestapo, a cheap old Nazi villain with corny, ’40s style robots. His name is so ridiculous I assume he’s an old Red Circle character as well. The Great Ten, as I understand them here, are a Chinese superteam made up by somebody who knows a lot about American superheroes and maybe Googled a bit about Chinese mythology. The leader is basically imperious Chinese Iron Man, there’s some mystic type we don’t see much of, and a guy who multiplies as Seven Deadly Brothers, which is basically the same idea as Marvel’s The Collective Man. The couple of confrontations Shield has with them are inconclusive and uninteresting, probably in part because they have their own series and it would be dumb to make them come off badly, although, you know, Magog does, and he’s got his own book somehow.

One of the bright spots throughout most of the run (there was a fill-in issue or two) has been the development of artist Rudy. He draws from Tony Harris, J.H. Williams III and perhaps Jim Steranko for page compositions, often using a circular panel as a central image from which other panels radiate. While these bold compositions are sometimes distracting from the storytelling, overall it makes for a compelling, modern-looking book, his art doing its best to disguise the pedestrian content. Certainly having veteran inker Mick Gray, a frequent partner of Williams, accounts for some of the similarity.

Another positive in the run, and likely a reason some readers stuck with the book a little longer, is the work from Brandon Jerwa and his artists on the backup stories, which are often a bit longer than traditional four-to-six pages in length. His first serial, broken into a four-parter and then a two-parter taking place right after those events (probably an indication that the book was in trouble and Jerwa had to move onto other business) features Inferno, a flaming character whose facial features are different when he’s on fire, and who has no memories of who he is or how he got these powers, though we learn as we go that he apparently laid backup plans in case of this memory loss. Greg Scott draws these, and while I haven’t been following his work much since Sword of Dracula years ago, he seems not to have grown much since then. It looks competent but obviously Photoshopped, page composition in thrall to the reference material. In the hands of another artist, Inferno is something I would give a try to as its own book.

Better yet is the subsequent Fox backup, as Jerwa is joined by the reliable Oeming, who always brings solid storytelling and a certain stylistic swagger to his work. For his part, Jerwa brings a welcome sensitivity to his portrayal of the lead character, a movie star in Japan seeking answers to the murder of his father, which brings him into his father’s world of double agents and ninjas. Familiar territory for Oeming but who better to have on-board, and there also aren’t many artists who could bring such an elegant, Toth-like simplicity to the design of The Fox.

The final story arc for The Shield has begun more promisingly than the others, with The Shield now leading a team of soldiers against a high-tech terror outfit called Black Seven. Even better, he’s forced to team up with The Brain Emperor, a creepy mind controller with tentacles coming off is head who was previously used by Grodd against him and the other U.S. soldiers. So, as with the Magog story, it’s a bit of a buddy movie, but seems to have a bit more edge and purpose to it, maybe because Trautmann knows the series is winding down. In just a couple months, the series will end and The Shield and the other Red Circle characters become third-stringers in the DCU. 

I’ll savor the remaining Fox stories and it appears the main Shield story will be enjoyable enough. Ultimately, while Trautmann failed to impress with dialogue and characterization, a good deal of the blame for the series’ lack of success has to be placed at the editorial end. We have a super-solder in a “lethal” warsuit who avoids killing, where the emphasis is on his amazing technology, but this wondrous suit leaves the top of his head exposed. The Shield shows some doubts about his role here and there, but the rest of the time is portrayed as a true-blue, unquestioning soldier, his government seen as justified in the various incursions he’s assigned to carry out. There is no supporting cast to speak of and only a hint of a larger story to be told about The Shield’s father that is always subordinate to one weak sister guest star after another. No one ever seemed to be quite on the same page and only Jerwa, Rudy, and probably too late to matter, Oeming, seemed willing to dig deeper to try to make the package work.

—Christopher Allen

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