Saturday, January 15, 2011

John Byrne’s Next Men #2 – A Review

Although I consider myself a huge John Byrne fan, I never really followed his Next Men work regularly. Maybe I didn't pick up the first few issues in the 90’s out of spite for him leaving another mainstream book I liked (drawing Namor perhaps?). I was going to cite the difficulty of getting the issues as a possible reason, but then I remembered I was still getting my comics mailed to me from Dave’s Comics at the time. Also, there used to be a comic store in Blacksburg called the Hobby Shop, where I would sometimes get non-list issues, but they always sealed up their books so the college kids couldn’t read them without paying for them. (You really do have to judge a book by its cover in that case.) I did eventually pick up his 2112 one-shot and the first trade of the original series about a decade ago. I could’ve sworn I’d picked up some other issues afterwards (usually in quarter bins), but I could only find one and I have no idea where the others are. I do know I never even got close to getting a complete run. Suffice it to say my recollection of the series is about as “swiss-cheesed” as the memories of the book’s main characters.

I generally don’t purchase IDW monthlies, because their trades are so exceptional and usually at a cheaper price. However, when the rave reviews came out over Next Men #1, last month I picked up a copy a week later and after reading it added it to my pull list. (Actually, it was Next Men #31 – I thought the small “3” was for Volume 3 or something, but the first series ended at issue 30.) So, I was surprised to already find issue 2 in my box last week less than a month after the first issue. I know Byrne traditionally works very fast, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we get more than 12 issues this year. Even after the recap in issue #1, which I need to reread, I’m still not sure what’s going on, but all you need to know (as if it were the Nemedian Chronicles) is the Story So Far on the inside cover. “Now a mysterious armored figure has kidnapped Nathan, Bethany, Jasmine, Danny and Tony, and scattered them across time.” Enough with the preamble, let’s get down to the review of issue #2 or #32.

Wow, what an intense and engrossing book! The opening section has Tony dropped smack into the Civil War, on a muddy military road in the South about to be run over by an angry mounted Confederate soldier and his men. These cruel racist jerks are no ancestors of mine (my great-great-grandfather fought in the 1862 May 15 battle of Drewry's Bluff. Not everyone in the South owned slaves, y’know). Tony thinks she’s in some sort of virtual reality “dream” world and when she asks for a lift, the captain kicks her to the ground. They see her as a half naked runaway slave. Tony’s a tough cookie though and is pretty successful in taking most of the guys out, until they start shooting at her with real ammunition. One of the men knocks her out with the butt of a rifle and then they drag her over to the nearest fence post to get brutally whipped. (I didn’t like her language either, but I certainly don’t condone how they handled it.) Comments abound about how she must be a house slave given her scarless back and her smooth hands. This actually saves her life (mercifully she’s long since passed out already), because they figure someone will want her back. However, the two soldiers charged with finding her “owners”, instead sell her to the Slave market in exchange for a hotel stay and a trip to a brothel. When Tony eventually wakes up, she’s already on steamboat heading “down th’ river”; finally realizing this is no dream.

Byrne handles this sequence masterfully, striking the right balance with the violence. It’s neither gratuitous nor titillating. It’s repulsive, but not enough to make you turn away, with just enough detail to convey the extreme danger and the brutality. The pacing and the panel layouts are fantastic, especially the fight scenes where characters extend beyond the panel borders. One page in particular has an almost 3D effect (Byrne is no stranger to 3D comics as I hope to one day discuss).

Nathan (the guy with the large black eyes) is dumped into the middle of a World War II battlefield somewhere in Europe where he comes upon a US Army sergeant and his men. Quicker than Tony did, he manages to assess the situation and pretends he’s an escaped P.O.W, so that they won’t kill him. They find an abandoned, bombed out farmhouse to take shelter in where the medic cleans Nathan up, shaving his hair to a very short crewcut to remove the lice. While they are sleeping a German slaughters the GIs, but spares Nathan, thinking he belongs to one of the local concentration camps (remember the hair cut?). Worse yet, given his eyes they think he’s one who’s been experimented on already. Nathan who has remembered nothing up to this point finally recognizes one of the German doctors.

Just a few pages are devoted to two of the other characters. Jasmine finds herself in Colonial England, where the Earl of Oxford has rescued her off the streets. While in the future, Jack now a gray-haired Catholic priest is being interviewed for discovering the grave of “one of the great names…in the fight for liberty [who] stands alongside Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth": Antonia Murcheson. What did “Tony” do to make her so famous? Only foil the assassination attempt on President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.

Byrne makes each time period seem authentic, especially with the natural dialogue. It’s a captivating story with plenty of mystery. What can I say, I’m hooked. This is shaping up to be great series and I’m now anxious to read up on all the backstory (perhaps even splurging on the HC collections someday [Comic-Con here I come]).

GRADE A+: FANTASTIC second issue that’s even more riveting than the first. The only bad thing is the disappointment you feel when you get to the end, leaving you wanting more. Luckily, with Byrne you won’t have to wait long!

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