There’s something I call “The JJ Abrams Effect”, given how often it seems to happen in his shows. You’re chugging along quite happily with what seems in itself to be a perfectly good setup for a story, when all of a sudden the rug is pulled out from under you, and you end up with a quite different story from what you were expecting, often something that provides a devilish twist on those expectations. In this, the third issue of this cracking supervillain series, Mark Bertolini puts this JJ Abrams Effect masterfully into use. Spoilers ahoy!
I thought I had a grasp of what this series was about. A lone supervillain on the run from all of the world’s superheroes. Great fodder for a miniseries. But that narrative thread is brought to a shockingly abrupt halt by the events of this issue, and shockingly we end the chapter with lovable loser Ethan Shade finding himself no longer the world’s most wanted supervillain, and instead part of the world’s most beloved superhero team. And while the initial setup is a great high pitch for a miniseries, what we have now is an idea that could easily sustain an ongoing, if Bertolini chose to go that way.
The first couple of issues have been quite a thrill ride, but I feel it is with this issue that we really get into the characters and this world. The opening sequence serves a clever dual purpose of setting up the various key figures in superhero team The Elder Statesmen, while also establishing Dr. Winter’s low opinion of Ethan Shade, and in turn tells us more about Shade himself. Shade is someone who just doesn’t belong, someone who will always be (fittingly, given his name) overshadowed by others with bigger personalities. Taking this into consideration, James Boulton’s indistinct design for Shade now seems like a deliberate artistic choice. I still couldn’t tell you what the guy looks like, and I think the characters in the book would tell you the same thing.
It’s a shame that this issue sees Dr. Winter get killed off, in the same issue where we discover he wasn’t already dead. I really liked Bertolini’s depiction of this character, as much put-upon and world-weary as he was evil and vindictive. This is a character who I feel had the potential of being fleshed out and explored further, and his demise leaves a void in that antagonist role, one that will be more necessary than ever given Shade’s switch in allegiance. But the sting of his death is dulled by the fact that his gory off-panel demise – and Shade’s reaction to it – gives us possibly Boulton’s most beautifully-arranged page yet. Well, about as beautiful as a page with vomiting can be.
Perhaps the best element of the issue is the final scene, where Ethan Shade is dismissed and relegated to getting food and drinks for his teammates by the heroes, just as he was by the villains in the opening scene. The bookending sequences at the start and end of the comic highlight what I think is emerging as a key theme of Breakneck: that all that really separates the heroes from the villains in this world is the public’s perception of them, or as Foreverman would put it, their “PR”. For Ethan Shade, it doesn’t take some swelling up of internal goodness or inherent decency to go from monstrous supervillain to Elder Statesman – all it takes is a press conference.
This series gets better with every issue. And with Breakneck #3, I’m left with no clue where the story goes from here. But whatever direction it takes, I’m sure as hell eager to read it.