Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cla$$war: Series One Review

The folks over at Com.X were kind enough to send me a copy of the hardcover collection of Cla$$war, which contains the six issue miniseries original published from 2002-2004. Despite facing unfortunate delays, the series was a critical darling upon its initial release. This year, Com.X has rereleased the series in a hardcover collection. How does it hold up by 2009 standards? Hit the jump to find out.

Written by Rob Williams
Art by Trevor Hairsine, Travel Foreman, and Len O’Grady
Letters by Eddie Deighton
Cover by Trevor Hairsine and Len O’Grady
Published by Com.X

The story of Cla$$war takes place in an alternate early 2000’s United States, where a team of super powered individuals, known as Enola Gay, are the government’s premier peacekeepers. When the most powerful of these government sanctioned “heroes,” the American, learns from an aging radical that the government is secretly being run at the behest of greedy corporations with the sole focus of capitalistic gain, he goes rogue and declares a merciless war on the administration, attacking both their policies and the other sanctioned heroes.

As the American reveals the proof of his claims of corruption and fraud, the American populace turns on the administration. In response, the President orders an invasion of an island nation in the name of continued expansion of democracy. Meanwhile, the remaining members of Enola Gay find themselves being hunted down by the American and prepare a vicious assault on their former teammate.

In 2009, this series doesn’t sound tremendously original. Rogue superheroes have been all the rage lately and we’ve seen our fair share of powerful “heroes” going up against the government in various fashions. Initially, Cla$$war will remind readers of books like Warren Ellis’s Black Summer, bits of Marvel’s Civil War event, and both in terms of content and tone, Marvel’s original Ultimates miniseries. This is due to the explicitly political tone of the story. When American attacks the President in the first issue, it isn’t because he has become unhinged; it is because of the unethical practices of the American government.

This is where Cla$$war is truly ahead of its time. While a story like this would be nothing shocking now, you have to keep in mind that the original miniseries was launched in 2002. Interestingly enough, the series was originally set to debut in 2001, but was delayed due to the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Given the timing of the release, you have to hand it to Com.X for making such a bold decision to even publish something so relentlessly bold. Reading it now, it is fascinating to see how well writer Rob Williams captured the zeitgeist of the moment and how chillingly prophetic the series is when the President orders the invasion. Granted, it is worth noting that the final three issues of the series were released in 2004, a year after the US invaded Iraq. Still, the delay was due to a burglary that nearly shut Com.X down for good, so one can assume that the latter half of the series was plotted prior to the 2003 invasion. Though, it is also worth noting that the artistic representation of the invasion is far more similar to American operations in Vietnam.

Of course, that is not to say that the political aspects of this thriller are perfect in their execution. While the indictment of the government is central to the plot, Williams does gloss over a lot of details, especially in regards to what exactly the government is doing wrong. Other than the Wag the Dog invasion plans and some public outcry, very little of the political machinations are explored. While the overall tone of the story carries through the point of what’s missing, the reader is left to fill in a lot of the gaps left in the conspiracy. The lack of concrete examples does hurt the credibility of the American in the first act, but the focus on the invasion in the second half does provide implied proof and helps guide the reader to rally behind him.

In terms of craft, I’m impressed with Williams’s work here, though you can tell that that this is definitely from the beginning of his career. His characters are largely built from archetypes and riffs on other established characters (right down to the American having his own Rick Jones-style sidekick). This allows Williams to focus more on plot than character development, which is emphasized in the extremely linear and direct dialogue. Through this, personalities take time to emerge and so the characters aren’t tremendously engaging until the final few issues.

The most impressive aspect of the writing is the plotting. The series works at an impressively efficient pace. There is almost no filler throughout the series, which is always a plus. As the story progresses and Williams becomes more comfortable with the characters and concepts, more layers begin to develop. The increased complexity works well with the build towards the climax, with everything coming to a head perfectly in the final act—easily the most impressive section of the book. In fact, the build up works so well and the climax pays off with such zeal, that the miniseries ends with one of the most impressive and enrapturing cliffhangers I’ve read in a long, long time. The only problem is that the series hasn’t been revisited since ending in 2004, leaving the reader clamoring for more and cursing Williams for the open ending.

While the writing is impressive on its own, the story would not be nearly as effective if it weren’t for the excellent art throughout the series. The first half of the book was drawn by Trevor Hairsine, who was then replaced by Travel Foreman when the book returned from hiatus. Hairsine’s work is filled with energy and has some very interesting perspectives, though his lack of backgrounds and style inconsistencies are problematic at times. Foreman, on the other hand, uses a considerably tighter style that adds a great sense of realism and is much more consistent. Colorist Len O’Grady does an admirable job of using his bold colors to unify the look of the book and does a good enough of job that casual readers may not realize the shift. Overall, the simple, but effective layouts and strong expressions from both artists do a great job of matching both the tone and structure of the writing, giving the book an extremely impressive sense of cohesion.

It would be extremely unfair of me to review the main story of this collection without mentioning the excellent presentation as well. The hardback volume that I received was printed on extremely high quality paper and beautifully bound, showing that Com.X took great care to present the story in the best possible manner. In all honesty, the presentation is so good that other comic companies should be taking note. The collection also includes some great extras including an introduction by rising-star writer Andy Diggle, the original 16-page script that was used to pitch the story, a cover gallery, and a series of character sketches. Additionally, the collection also includes a new never-before-published prelude story, though after the story leaves so much unanswered, I would have much rather had the new scene be an epilogue of sorts.

Verdict: Must Read. I am incredibly grateful that Com.X was kind enough to send me this review copy. Cla$$war is an intelligent, action-packed story that is well ahead of its time and features incredibly fine craftsman ship from an excellent creative team. It is easy to see why writer Rob Williams and artists Trevor Hairsine and Travel Foreman all went on to do work for Marvel and DC after the release of this series. The only major problem that I had with Cla$$war is that it ends long before I was ready for it to be over. This definitely a story that Williams and Com.X should revisit and one you should definitely seek out.

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Christine said...

I'd be curious to know how subtle this book is in its delivery and whether the story is nuanced in the way I would want from a political story, but not expect from something bearing the fairly incendiary title Cla$$War.

To give some background to my question here, I would say I'm a little disheartened by what I see as a general trend these days to paint Marxist inspired ideas as the natural counter-movement to the neo-con right in the US, when the answer (in my mind) is, and always has been, liberalism, in the more European sense of the word (think John Stuart Mill). I'm gradually becoming allergic to people drawing strange parallels between a level-headed acceptance of the (relatively) free market and outright greed and corruption. In my mind, capitalism isn't an ideology, it's an economic system. It's when people make an ideology of it that we have a problem.

I won't go into politics any further (sorry everyone), I'm just trying to figure out if my being completely unimpressed with Karl Marx would hinder my enjoyment of this book or not. ;)

Mike I said...

The story is tired. People have been railing against those "evil, greedy capitalists" since the industrial revolution. And throw in the fact I read comics to forgot how corrupt and inept the government is, not to remind myself, I'm going to pass.

Ryan Schrodt said...

@Mike I - The story quickly evolves into an action story, so I don't think you'd hate it for the political undertones. If you dig something like the Ultimates, you may like this.

@Christine - If you are looking for anything "subtle" or "nuanced," Cla$$war might not be your thing. As I said in the review, when the book is political, it is pretty hamfisted at first, then fairly barren. The American doesn't offer up an ideology in reaction to the administration's crimes, just punches. It certainly isn't a knee-jerk Marxist reaction, but more of a knee-to-the-face. In that sense, its less of a political thriller and more of a political blow-'em-upper. However, the story progression is quite intelligent and the craftsmanship is solid. At the very least, despite the parallels between the fictional administration and the GWBush administration, the lack of an ideology from the American allows for readers from a wider range of the political spectrum to rally behind the main character in his quest. So, basically unless you are a Sean Hannity "Greed just isn't good, its great" follower, you'll find something to like here.

Matt Ampersand said...

I really need to free up some budget money to snatch up this hardcover.

Chad Warren said...

I loved this series when it came out. Highly underrated and ahead of its time. I was not aware that it was coming out with a hardcover. I will have to check it out.

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