3.5 stars out of 5.
Jump on this one, if you dig post-apocalyptic settings, superheroes, and dark heroic quests. Writer Rick Remender and artist Matt Broome take familiar comic book elements and tweak and nudge and origami their way into something very dark and brooding and intriguing enough to turn the heads of jaded readers. Dark Horse Comics pimps THE END LEAGUE as a "thematic merging of THE LORD OF THE RINGS and WATCHMEN" and, yeah, I can kind of see that. There's an end-of-the-world feel, a struggle for survival in a devastated world overrun by evil, a hopeless quest, and a sinister god waiting in the wings. Only, instead of the One Ring to Rule Them All, there's a hammer. Postmodern cynicism and hopelessness linger on every page, none of that Silver Age optimism here. The protagonists are predominantly flawed and, even when looked on as humanity's last hope, still bicker like crazy. In fact, the person introduced here as the central protagonist, he's the main reason the world turned to doodoo. I like it.
In May of 1962 Astonishman, the world's premier and mightiest hero, kills the world. Long stricken with hubris but then tricked by his nemesis, Astonishman unwittingly triggers a nuclear explosion which tilts the earth off its axis and releases a global wave of radiation. Three billion people die, and one in ten thousand mutates, becoming a Magnificent. Astonishman's faith in humanity collapses as, it turns out, most people when gaining super powers use them for their own selfish needs. They become villains. In the following decades Astonishman and a select few attempt to put things right, but the cause is bleak; it's a losing battle. Then, in what would later be known as the Day of Annihilation, the supervillains join forces and, in one fell swoop, wipe out most of the superheroes.
Twelve years pass, time which the few remaining heroes have spent in hiding. With the Norse god Thor having been murdered during the cataclysm, the heroes' one plan - and it's flimsy to the point of being laughable - is to find Mjolnir, the mystical hammer of Thor, the only weapon possibly powerful enough to turn the tide against a corrupt world. They only ever venture out to seek Mjolnir and to scavenge for food. A rumored delivery of a large cache of food supplies sends Astonishman and his fellow survivors to Northern Canada. And it's a really bad move.
THE END LEAGUE Vol. 1: BALLAD OF BIG NOTHING collects issues #1-4 of the bi-monthly series, and it's a frenetic ride. The first eight pages of the first issue drops a busload of inner monologuing as done by Astonishman, this universe's Man of Steel analog. Rick Remender sets the stage in these eight pages, the world building, the resulting world view, and Astonishman's crippling burden of guilt - few know that he was the cause of all this mess, and in fact he's regarded by humanity's leftovers as their savior. I'm really into this series, but, admittedly, for me, it's more about the premise than the actual characters. Astonishman, for examle, doesn't do anything for me. Whatever personality traits Remender imbues in him aren't enough to distinguish him from all the other Superman clones. In fact, Remender peoples his series with obvious avatars of Marvel and DC's more iconic cowls and capes. As of right now, most of them fall flat, excepting the Ghost Prairie and Codename: Black (*cough* Ghost Rider & Batman). Having said that, this series is very early into its arc development, so Remender has plenty of chances to flesh out his characters and turn them into their own individuals. But for now, it's a bit overwhelming keeping track of the huge cast, let alone all the different plot points. But I'm hooked enough that I'm willing to stick around and pick up on things.
One thing which really bugs me, though - and I'm about to PLOT SPOILER this - is the scene in which Wonder Wo- I mean, Divinity professes her love for Superm- I mean, Astonishman. That just smacks of too cheesy and played out.
This is supposed to be the desperate last stand of the few superheroes remaining on earth. But this is an ongoing bi-monthly series (becoming monthly with issue #5), so this is either an extended last stand or someone's been fibbin'. But one can't gainsay the dark and oppresive tone; it really does feel like any moment now these surviving do-gooders are about to get theirs but good. Remender writes a tale of despair in which redemption never comes and the good guys don't win. In fact, heroes die, and gruesomely. And the thought surfaces that, should the heroes ever end up with Thor's hammer, are any of them altruistic enough in their hearts to wield the thing? It's become that kind of world.
Co-creator Matt Broome delivers his dynamic, hard-hitting brand of etchings, with Eric Canete taking over full time beginning with issue #5, although you can scope out his terrific stuff in this trade, from pages 93-100, as he contributes artwork for issue #4.
It's fascinating that one simple conceit could so reduce the world to shambles. I'm not referring to Astonishman's hubris but rather to that of average folks granted extraordinary abilities and then using them for their own ends. It's nice to think that most people would do the right thing when given the chance, but I guess it's also realistic to not be surprised when they don't.
It's taking its sweet time, but I'm hoping to get over Remender's sampling of the DC and Marvel universes. It's still a struggle not to automatically scream "C'mon, that's the Joker, brother!!" whenever I glimpse the Smiling Man in a panel. But FrankenThor rocks ("Thor kill puny human!"), Dead Lexington is a wicked cool name for a supervillain, and, since Spidey is my favorite costumed dude, I'm hoping Arachnakid would do something cool soon (or just do anything, come to think of it).
There's plenty of violence, some of it very brutal. Rick Remender takes his heroes and treats them like toilet paper after an evening at an Indian restaurant. I just wish I cared more about them. Right now, I'm not as impacted by all the really horrible, hurtful stuff happening to the good guys. But, like I said, I have hopes that these characters will grow on me. If there's one thing this series smacks of, it's potential.
By the way, in a post-apocalyptic world, would superhero costumes really still look this clean and shiny?