Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Good Idea, Almost Executed

In 1991 DC Comics did something different. It published a three issue, prestige format story that had nothing to do with the DCU. This pre-dates Vertigo but almost certainly would have been a Vertigo publication if it had existed. What is this? It's The Psycho, written by James Hudnall and drawn by Dan Brereton.

I think what drew me to the work in the first place was Hudnall. Problem is, I can't recall why, now. In fact, I can't think of what else he's written that I read. It might have been something for Eclipse Comics. I was buying quite a bit of their stuff back then. That had to do with Scout by Timothy Truman, but I'll write more about Scout another day.

Anyway, here's the basics on The Psycho. It's an alternate history Earth. The divergence appears to have occurred in 1941 when a super powered agent of the US, Blake Zimmerman, kills Hitler and Eva Braun. Zimmerman is the product of a drug the US developed called XDL. It kills most of the people who take it, drives many others insane, but leaves the survivors with super powers, though there's no predicting what kind of powers ahead of time. Zimmerman seems to have strength and the ability to fly. Anyway, WWII ends with Hitler's death and the nuclear program is never pursued at that time. All the research money goes into XDL. The European nations keep their colonies. The Soviets develop their own super hero drug (0r steal the formula to the XDL) and the Cold War is a balance of super powers, though the US doesn't lose Vietnam, as the French never lose it in the first place.

Set in 1991 with flashbacks to 1941 and 1988 (when an Arab leader with super powers tries to assassinate Blake Zimmerman, who's now the President of the US), the story focuses on Jake Riley, a normal human who works for the CIA as an agent. Normal agents are relegated to unglamorous duty like ferreting out drug kingpins in South America while super powered, or FCO (for Freelance Costumed Operatives), agents get all the glory. After an incident where Riley gets some really deranged Chilean DEA type agents killed, he joins a group called SIN, the Super Intelligence Network. He is sent to an island nation called Aldair, located in the Black Sea and a former English colony where English is the primary language. He's undercover as an airport janitor, monitoring the influx of FCOs to Aldair, which has a disproportionate number of FCOs for such a small country. Apparently Delaware could work it's way into this accumulation of powers, though, as Aldair is achieving this through tax free living for FCOs. I get that these guys are largely mercenaries, but no income tax doesn't seem to be enough reason for them to be drawn to this island.

Riley falls for a local girl a couple months into his assignment, and when the story picks up, he's eight months in, looking to quit SIN, and take off with his girl, Sonya. Before he can, other normal agents try to kill him. When that fails, some low power FCOs are sent after him, but he manages to kill them, too. He flees Aldair, leaving Sonya behind, and arrives in Istanbul. He's still not able to get out of SIN. Feeling like he's trapped and that there's no other way to rescue Sonya, he goes back to Aldair, robs a bank of $450k, and pays $100k for XDL. Oh, did I mention that he hates all the FCOs because of his lackey status in SIN and the CIA? Yeah, that's an element in the story, too.

Surving the XDL, Riley becomes an FCO. In an incredible bit of irony (no, not really), he adopts the name The Psycho. Why is this ironic? I think it's supposed to be because the common slang for FCOs is psychos. Who knows why, as most of them are mercenaries, not mentally deranged. In fact, in the entire three issue story, the only mentally ill FCO we come across is a guy who likes to levitate knives. Oh, and Riley himself, who seems to have a split personality after the XDL treatment, taking the Batman/Bruce Wayne dichotomy a step further.

Naming for these FCOs seems to be a problem generally. Most of them go throughout unnamed, including a hot girl in pink who shows up throughout the first two issues, even on the cover of the first. But those that are named included a guy named Pool who can create self contained fields of water (which seem to stay intact even after he's dead), a guy called Spook who can become intangible to different degrees, and a guy called Pike, who looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

I suppose as good a reason as any to call the character The Psycho is that we never really seem to glean what his powers are, other than being a split personality. We are told that all who come out the other side alive with XDL have greater speed, strength and stamina, but the only other specific things Riley seems to get are the ability to hear radio frequencies and the ability to breathe under water. He's a radio antenna and amphibian. Not much you can do with that in the cool names department, so I guess leaning on the split personality problem is the best alternative.

Riley ends up freeing Sonya from Aldair and taking her to the US, where he's now pursuing his former boss at SIN because, in the course of freeing Sonya, he learns that his boss is actually working with Aldair. A shootout breaks out at the airport and Sonya is shot, as well as a couple of the shooters. Riley flees and begins tracking his boss at SIN, a guy named Winslow. One of the first things Riley learns is that Winslow is a family guy with a wife and young child, which Riley says may make it more difficult to kill the guy.

In the meantime, Winslow hired three other FCOs, Pike, the Spook and the knife guy, to track down and kill Riley. Riley leads them on with false clues to places he might be staying, leaving booby traps that net a bunch of dead drug dealers and one exploded building, but no damage to the trackers. Eventually, Riley kidnaps Winslow, tricks Winslow into laying out the plan to help Aldair and frame Riley on tape, and setting up for the three trackers to finally locate him with Winslow.

Evidently Riley's previous angst about killing Winslow was just a momentary lapse of...something. Can't really say judgment, as not killing the guy would seem to have been the right way to go. Can't say morals for the same reason. Lapse of insanity? That'd be a new one, but maybe that's what Hudnall was looking for.

Anyway, Riley's previous mental reservations are tossed aside. He leaves Winslow trussed (but in a way that you can't see that he's trussed) and constumed like the Psycho. Now, Riley knows these three guys are out to kill him, so it's pretty obvious what's going to happen to Winslow, and sure enough, knife boy does the honors, with nary a whit of remorse or reservation noted on Riley's part.

This is, as you can see, some slipshod writing. In fact, the entire third issue seemed to be rushed. There was all this build through the first two and well into the third, when suddenly we're hitting a resolution of sorts. Riley kills knife boy, traps Spook partially phased into a wall, and is engaged in a pitched battle with Pike when Pike suddenly retreats upon figuring out Riley can breathe under water. Pike is a lot larger and a professional killer, so it seems odd that he'd make a strategic retreat. He also hasn't been developed as that smart of a character. Spook is the leader of this bunch, so it would have made sense for him, but not so much for Pike. Pike somehow manages to retrieve Spook, too, even though we last saw Spook trapped in a wall and he's still unconscious. Most bizarrely, Pike retrieves knife boy's head, which Riley had separated from his body, and takes the head with him. No idea what the point is in that. Pike had just proclaimed a few moments before that he didn't even like the guy, so I have no idea why he'd want the guy's head.

Hudnall also throws in a last minute development that the Soviets have just tested the first atomic bomb. Once President Zimmerman hears of Riley's exoneration and abilities, he wants Riley brought in to help while the US rushes to develop its own bomb, but Riley's on a journey of self discovery with his dual personality self. Clearly, this story was supposed to continue into either an ongoing series or at least another mini-series, but nothing ever happened. I have seen where Universal Studios bought the rights to the story, which had reverted back to Hudnall and Brereton by this time, in fall 2003, but it doesn't look like anything more ever came of that.

I almost forgot to mention the hurried resolution of the Sonya story line. She wasn't actually shot in the airport. She wasn't dead. It's never explained how this was possible, as the agents trying to kill Riley were certainly using real bullets and it was a bullet from one of their guns that hit her and left her bleeding on the airport floor. Nonetheless, in the course of following Winslow, Riley ends up at a gay bar and finds Winslow paying off a couple of women. Once Winslow leaves, Riley realizes one of the women is Sonya, the other being her girlfriend. Sonya tells Riley she was an agent of SIN all along because she was being persecuted by Aldair for being a lesbian and SIN was going to help her out. She wasn't a prisoner on Aldair after he escaped to Istanbul but was being held to protect her from him.

There's a serious lack of sense here. If she's an agent of SIN, spying on Riley, why would Aldair, which is persecuting her for being a lesbian, hold her in protective custody? She wouldn't have known she was actually working for Aldair when she was working for Winslow. The Aldairian government wouldn't seem to want to protect her if it was its persecution that drove her to SIN in the first place (sorry about that). Why not just leave her exposed as bait to draw Riley back, if getting Riley was the goal?

Hudnall doesn't seem to know much about gay bars, either. Lesbians don't generally hang out at gay bars. What would be the point? How are you going to find other women to meet if you're at a bar that caters to men meeting other men? That's why gay bars and lesbian bars are two different things. In this bar, we see both male/male couples and female/female couples. It may as well be a straight bar, for all the confustion it's likely to engender.

This was a solid idea that faltered in its execution. The set up of the alternate history was good. Real people moments are also a bit of a treat. George Patton goes along with Zimmerman in the plane that drops Zimmerman over Germany and is killed when the plane is shot down. Fidel Castro is taken out by Zimmerman before he can take over Cuba. George HW Bush is Zimmerman's Secretary of State and portrayed as a bit goofy. Che Guevara is alive and possibly still a threat, as he's suspected of having taken XDL. Little things like that made it interesting. But it unwinds in the last issue.

Really, what's held up and made me keep the series is the art by Dan Brereton. His painted work and sort of off kilter style were perfect for the feeling Hudnall was trying to deliver. He draws sharp features on faces. He exagerates costume features. He has a lush brush. Sometimes a little too lush. All the Anglo characters, when not wearing a costume, look flushed. Maybe they're all going through menopause? I think that if the series had had more time, Hudnall could have developed the story further along. We would have had a much better overall production where the story would have done justice to the art. Most importantly, Hudnall could have taken his time in developing the story and not run into the problems we see here. A few years later and this could have been a good starting point for a Vertigo series. It's good that Hudnall and Brereton own the rights to the story now. Maybe they can revist it and work out in greater depth.

1 comment:

  1. Good review, I had forgotten this series.