Shelby: Work-life balance is a hard thing to maintain. You need to work to, you know, live and stuff, but if you can’t have a non-work life then what’s the point? Even if you’re one of the lucky few who happens to love your job, you need a life outside of it to stay sane. I actually have two jobs, and even though I love my weekend gig working at my local comic shop, I still strive to remember to take time for myself. Hard as it is for me to maintain a healthy work-life balance, I have to imagine it’s nearly impossible for someone like James “Rhodey” Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine, a.k.a. Iron Patriot. When your job consists of being a costumed superhero working for the United States government, is there ever really a point when you’re not working?
The issue opens with a broken and defeated Rhodey being asked by a mysteriously armored figure if he was a true patriot. Two days earlier, he was in New Orleans, trying to keep the city from sinking and trying to figure out his new job. He is switching his focus from special ops to the homefront in order to spend more time with his niece Lila, who lives with her grandparents. He holds a press conference to announce his decision, but is interrupted by a call to go save New Orleans from what I can only describe as “goo monsters.”
Before he can save the day, however, his suit shuts down and plummets into the ocean. You see, there’s some shadowy, secret organization who set him up, blackmailed his supporters in Congress to denounce his decision, and is planning on kidnapping his niece for publicly supporting Rhodey’s decision.
Ales Kot is taking a very cinematic approach to this story; it reads like a spy-action-thriller. Generally I applaud that sort of approach, but unfortunately here I think it’s detrimental to the book. The story smash-cuts its way from scene to scene to the point of being difficult to follow; I had to read it a second time just to figure out the plot progression. Once I did figure it out, I still wasn’t especially impressed with it. The book opens with Rhodey seemingly at the end of his rope, flashes back to two days prior, and ends with Rhodey seemingly at the end of his rope elsewhere. Whatever tension we’re supposed to feel about seeing him plummet into the Gulf of Mexico is completely negated by the fact we know he makes it out alive because this is all a flashback. This also feels very much like a story I’ve seen before with characters I already know. The Emotionally-Repressed Father Trying to Make Right, The Tech-Prodigy Child, The Son Trying to Do Right, The Mysterious Shadowed Figure Who is Both a Family Man and a Military Hero Like Ed Harris in The Rock; this isn’t just a spy-action-thriller, it’s a spy-action-thriller I’ve already seen.
These characters just come off as hollow to me; I recognize them for what they’re supposed to be, but since there’s nothing real there for me to connect to, I have a hard time working up any interest in what is going on. Well, I guess I am curious as to why Rhodey doesn’t have some sort of contingency plan for his suit malfunctioning; that just seems like really poor planning on his part.
I was intrigued by this book because I was very happy with Kot’s brief run on Suicide Squad. In one issue of that title he established a firm grasp of who those characters were and a clear tone for the book itself; here, however, the characters come off as flat and the story itself rather shallow. I like Garry Brown’s art, it reminds me of a softer version of Sean Murphy, but that doesn’t give the story a big enough boost in my opinion. Greg, what do you think? Am I being too hard on this first issue? Were you better able to connect to the characters and story than I?
Greg: Firstly, I one hundred percent feel your pain when it comes to struggling with work-life balance. I have a tendency to accept any and all creative commitments and obligations because, well, I have fun doing them, only to burn myself out because I have not, as you rightly phrase it, taken time for myself. Thus, I was looking forward to reading this issue and identifying with Rhodey’s omnipresent work-life struggle; yet even though he, like me, seems to prefer taking this new and taxing challenge on, I couldn’t help but feel at arms length with the character. I think it’s because Kot has too much family backstory to stuff into one issue, leaving us with lengthy, clunky, and unrealistic infodumps that just simply aren’t how families communicate with each other. As you point out, Shelby, Kot is working with several immediately identifiable character archetypes; thus, I wish he didn’t find it necessary to overwork and make sure we understand, as it’s very clear.
However, at times I quite appreciated the “smash-cut” storytelling structure. Seeing Brown’s disparate panels smashed together one after the other often surprised me, and forced me to synthesize the information myself, rather than having it spelled out explicitly by Kot (another instance where I agree with you praising the artist over the writer). This technique is used to communicate a fun punchline (Lila is about to use vulgar language on her viral video when we smash to a newscast), foreshadow a hero-villain relationship to come (our shadowy villain’s plans to nab Lila smashed to the newscaster teasing that “James Rhodes is currently unavailable for comment”), and in my favorite moment of the issue, illuminate effectively a sadly repressed father and son relationship.
Rhodey and his father talk on the porch, when suddenly Rhodey has to make a quick retreat. Then, when the page turns, we see this:
Lovely, sad, and deceptively simple. In a kind of “hidden in plain sight smash,” we don’t realize a “cut” has taken place until we turn the page. Powerful, tight, effective storytelling; yet if the rest of this series wants to maintain this level of quality, Kot needs to trust that we can meet him halfway.
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