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From their place in the occasional house ad or as the result of DC’s occasional bouts with Quixotism, the heroes created as part of Archie Comics’ Red Circle line always seemed to me to be the comic book equivalent of off-brand breakfast cereal. While their continued existence suggested some measure of enduring appeal or purpose, I found it inscrutable from afar. Why, was my thinking, should I ever invest in a superhero wrapped in an American flag called The Shield when Captain America is around and perfectly accessible?
Sometimes, though, Captain America just isn’t around. In my case, a combination of increasing dissatisfaction with the super-hero books I grew up with and my general enjoyment of writer Ian Flynn and artist Ben Bates’ previous work meant that, when Archie announced its latest attempt at retooling the Red Circle heroes in the form of the online-first title New Crusaders, I was far more enthusiastic about the prospect than I might have otherwise been. Flynn, in particular, is responsible for two of my favorite current titles, Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man, so the idea of him bringing his talents to actual superhero comics was enough to catch my interest, even if the super-heroes in question happened to sound generic as hell.
This particular new take on the concept introduces the descendants and protégées of the original Mighty Crusaders—the Circleverse’s version of the Justice League–and then haves them take on their now-retired predecessors’ identities after the old team is apparently killed off by one of its old nemeses. The sextet of new kids are accompanied and led by Joe Higgins, a.k.a. The Shield, the only still-active member of the original team. It is he who takes in the kids after their guardians’ demise, and who convinces them to try and become super-heroes.
And by “convince” I mean “coerce”, with a side of manipulation and some lying.
In the same breath with which he tells the kids that their parents are dead, Higgins announces that he’s officially adopted them all and that he will now groom them to take their parents’ places as superheroes—no questions asked, consent is not a consideration. After he’s rightfully called out on his crap, he tricks them into going through his version of The X-Men’s Danger Room, thinking that putting the kids in even more danger will turn them around—and, because the comic needs them to actually become super-heroes, they do, and agree to be subjected to experimental procedures with the potential to permanently alter their personalities if not outright kill them, because some old asshole who has just shown that he’s perfectly willing to lie, endanger, and further traumatize them if they don’t do what he wants told them to.
Now, given the writer, it’s certainly possible these details won’t be left unexplored—Higgins’ single-minded zeal to turn these kids into his posse by hook or by crook feels too prominent to be casually abandoned. Even so, the fact that we have yet another character whose main characteristic is their utter lack of empathy and whose behavior would be considered villainous but for the fact that their job description reads “super-hero” is incredibly disappointing. Whatever its other merits, the reason I was interested in this book was precisely because I had hoped it would be an escape from this sort of approach to the subgenre and feature characters who were actually inspiring; instead, I got yet another version of Nick Fury / Amanda Waller and a bunch of prime candidates for post-traumatic stress disorder, for whom a happy ending would involve getting taken away from their new guardian to get the counseling they’ll most likely need.
Of course, one could, if one were so inclined, make that same case for most if not all young sidekicks: if we agree that there are certain things which that teenagers cannot consent to, “dressing up in a costume to fight armed criminals in a manner that places one outside the law” would likely be way up there. And yet I still quite like Robin, which suggests that my problem here is not conceptual but contextual. These are children whose parents have just been killed. These are children who were until recently unaware of their superheroic legacy, and who in discovering it have also realized that their parents/guardians had lied to them throughout their entire lives. These are heroes who have no superpowers of their own, and indeed, nothing to indicate their suitability for crime-fighting except for an alleged instinct for teamwork and camaraderie. Canonically, The Shield could have granted the abilities of the original team to anyone, and yet he chooses kids in the midst of life-changing trauma and in the space of a week has them trying to hold off a prison riot. It’s a setup that suggests not fun superheroics, but Neon Genesis Evangelion with spandex, and yet very little of it is actually explored. Sure, there are various scenes which show the protagonists indeed having being traumatized, but these ring false: it’s the sort of trauma that is there for a couple of pages only to be resolved with a hug, some encouraging words, or an epiphany.
Making all of this especially dismaying is that, once you take away that element, one is left with some pretty solid superheroics, which would have been more than enough to scratch the itch that had me looking at New Crusaders in the first place. Nothing here is stellar—Flynn tends to be one of those writers who needs a few arcs under his belt to really get going—but there are plenty of pleasing moments, suggesting the potential for future greatness. The young heroes, while not quite getting enough development to erase that initial stock character feel, are likable enough, and the series does an exceptionally good job with the world-building, using enough old elements to make the ‘verse feel old and lived in, which I quite like.
Art chores for “Rise of the Heroes” are divided between Ben Bates, who draws the first two issues and part of the third, and Alitha Martínez, who draws the rest. While there are some noticeable differences between the two–Bates’ art is slightly more stylized and cartoony, which is especially noticeable in his facial expressions and the way he depicts Ivette Vélez’s (a.k.a. “Jaguar”) hair—the transition is fairly seamless, giving the book a distinctive, unified look rather reminiscent of Ed McGuiness’ art. However, one rather weird thing occurs in the last few pages—also, correctly or not, credited to Martínez– which feature a considerable shift in style to a more traditional aesthetic, which while not entirely inexplicable—at the very least the shift in styles matches, to a certain degree, the serious turn the story takes—feels very distracting.
In the end, reading New Crusaders feels like an exercise in irony. My interest in it lay in the presumption that it would avoid certain currently-popular tropes doing in the interest of being good, no frills super-hero comics. Instead, it turned out to be everything I was hoping to escape. I never thought I could dislike a comic for feeling too modern, yet that’s precisely my problem here.
If you can get over just how appalling The Shield’s behavior is, then this is a decent—if not great—super-hero book. However, I cannot, so I give it a 2 out of 5.
It introduces both the concept and the characters and features the (off-screen) deaths of most of the old guard, so yes, it’s essential.
Although this book does a very good job of being self-contained and easy to follow, it still follows the continuity of past Archie Red Circle books, which one can read if one wants to find out more about the heroes whose shoes the new team endeavors to fill. With this in mind, Archie has begun re-releasing those old stories electronically as part of their Red Circle app, which means that they’re actually more accessible that they’ve been in decades.
The original Peter David / Todd Nauck Young Justice, which has both the “heirs of established heroes” angle and manages to be fun and bright and hopeful while still being dramatic.