March 15, 2010

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The End League Volume 1

Written by Rick Remender
Illustrated by Mat Broome, Sean Parsons, and Eric Canete
Dark Horse

Imagine a world where the Silver Age Superman screwed up big time and caused the world to decay, slowly but surely, with the only "positive" being the creation of a vast number of superheroes--and supervillains, too.

Now imagine he's about the only person in the world who knows this, and as things grow worse for the few heroes left standing while the world decays and evil takes control a bit more day by day.

Lastly, imagine that there really doesn't seem to be any hope for the good guys, as even the gods themselves turn their backs on humanity.

That's the world Rick Remender has set up in the End League, a comic that's about as bleak as any that I've ever read. Normally these kinds of stories don't appeal to me. I like to see how people pick up the pieces after a horrible catastrophe, but if it's a situation where the good guys should lose but they don't, I end up pretty annoyed if it's not done well. I understand that it's all fiction, but to me, if the odds are impossible, then you should lose. When you don't, I can understand that if the story is good. I'd put Lord of the Rings in this category. When you don't over and over again (Star Trek, I'm looking at you), then I lose all respect for the the threat.

I think that's why I ended up liking End League. Unlike most no-win, impossible odds situations, I don't think Remender intends to have something go right for our band of heroes to save the day. I think they're going to slowly die, one by one, and fail in the attempt to redeem humanity.

Does it make me a bad person that I'm going to love every minute of it?

I didn't love it immediately, however, so if you give this one a try, make sure you give Remender time to set up the idea that failure is the most likely option. On the surface, we're seeing a Justice League team, though Remender works hard to keep the comparisons light and not too much of a copy. There's quite a bit of violence and fighting, enough to make a casual reader feel like this is a traditional capes versus capes dust up.

However, once you start getting into the text, you can see the Remender has more going on than a heroes and villains fight for the sake of the planet going on. He's using all the different catastrophe scenarios together, to show that not even super humans can handle everything. We've got nuclear war, famine, demons, and more all competing to be the thing that implodes the third planet from the sun once and for all.

In addition, Remender's skills for world building in such a short period of time are very good. Astonishman sets up the premise in only a few pages, and then we go from place to place on this world and on other planes to show the level of corruption and decay that faces our protagonists. We get hints of other characters without seeing much of them, and references to other places that serve as an oasis against the blight. I had no trouble picturing things, despite this only being four issues. Remender's brevity and ability to craft with only a few strokes of his creative brush hearken back to a day when comics weren't so bloated. It's quite refreshing. Those looking for a modern story told in a way that matches the older comics should like what they see.

There are a few tricks that I really liked and want to bring up here. The first was a resurrected Thor that talked like the Incredible Hulk, a hysterical idea that Remender even calls "Frankenthor" at one point. Another is his spin on the Batman-Joker dynamic. It's obvious why the Smiling Man smiles, but he does it in a way that doesn't feel like a pale copy. I also like the idea of the Batman analog hating metahumans or the fact that in a world where Lex takes over, the Joker gets Los Angeles. It's perfect.

Lastly, Remender captures the conflict between Lex and Superman (seen here as Lexington and Astonishman) in a way that most people writing DC's version of these characters misses. The two of them will go at each other regardless of costs. It's not about saving anyone, even if they both claim it is. Lexington must prove he is the better man--and if winning is all that counts, maybe he is.

I can see why Marvel got Remender to write for them. Though these characters echo DC more than Marvel, his writing style definitely fits better with the worldview of the former. These characters are all imperfect, and their flaws are proving to be their undoing. Time and time again, we see this happening on the page. Even if they manage to overcome things, just for a minute or two, it's right back into tragedy. It's a storytelling style I greatly appreciate.

Mat Broome's artwork works well for this series. He's able to draw things large and heroic while still keeping it proportional, relatively speaking. The world around them looks bleak as well, and I noticed that the costume designs are all on the muted side. I have to admit I didn't care for Eric Canete's portion of the book, at least not in this context. His style is too different from Broome's for it to match up. The book goes from crisply drawn to sketchy without so much of a break in issues or story plot to give us a heads up. That's a negative for me, but not enough to make me want to give up on the story.

The End League shows that you can write familiar heroes without them being carbon copies if you have the right person to do it. This is a heroic dystopia that isn't required to have a happy ending. I can't wait to see what Remender does with this. (The next trade is not due until June of 2010.) Will there be a light at the end of the tunnel or are things as bad as they seem?

I'm really hoping for the latter.