Review: S.W.O.R.D. #5

SWORD #5 cover by Mike del Mundo.

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

“No Time to Breathe, Part 5″

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Penciller: Steven Sanders
Inker: Craig Yeung
Colorist: Matt Wilson
Letterer: Dave Lanphear

Alas, it’s true– S.W.O.R.D. has come to its end. Fortunately for us, it’s the end Kieron Gillen intended for this arc all along, with nothing altered from the original plot. The Drenx invasion comes to a head, the internal politics of S.W.O.R.D. boil over, and there’s muffins– which, really, is all stuff you should expect if you’ve been keeping up with the series.

It’s hard not to think of what could have been, going through the wrap-up of the individual plots in this issue. Sure, Matt Fraction’s busy bringing back Kitty Pryde in Uncanny X-Men, but I’ll forever savor the notion that she could and would have had harsh words for UNIT’s fascist Utopianism during her reunion with Lockheed. Hepzibah is shown escaping the Peak’s brig… would that have brought Rachel Grey and the Starjammers to town for an uneasy meetup with Hank? Magneto’s recent machinations on the former Asteroid M might have returned him to near-Earth orbit, which would’ve put him in direct opposition to Agent Brand, someone every bit as obstreperous as Erik himself. The image of Brand and Magneto sitting in their respective offices, scowling at each other from antipodal Lagrange points, would’ve been worth the time it took to get there all by itself.

All of these things might have happened if the series had been given a chance to play out its overarching plot. In five issues, though, S.W.OR.D. delivers a complete and satisfying package. Not a plot point is left hanging as the remaining free members of the team set forth to stop the Drenx, contain Henry Peter Gyrich, and overturn the last vestiges of the orbital Dark Reign. Gillen knows how to deliver action at this pace, and Sanders’ artwork is easily the most assured he’s ever been on this series– check out Death’s Head on page 2, neatly framed by the geometry of the scene itself, all angular, implacable menace.

Unlike Gillen and co-conspirator Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram, which wrapped up its own run last month with an issue about the universal accessibility of the series’ magical paradigm, S.W.O.R.D. ends squarely where it began, with the focus on Beast and Brand. It’s right for this book; the emphasis on an adult adventuring couple remains the series’ biggest draw. It’s a shame more wasn’t done to play up the quirky romantic charm of the series when Marvel did the marketing, as I think it would have attracted more lifelong comics fans in long-term partnerships themselves.

As it stands, though, the chronicles of the crew at the Peak are over, and if you want to get in on the action, I recommend you grab the TPB, No Time to Breathe,and check it out. If you were among the S.W.O.R.D. faithful all along, I can also recommend Gillen’s Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter,a more-cosmic Marvel story that still bears his signature dry wit and high-stakes action.

It’s a sad day for comics, though. Now all I’ve got to sustain me is the faint hope that either the undisclosed Brian Clevinger project, or the new undisclosed Brian Clevinger project hinted at a few days ago, turns out to be a Starjammers book. After all, Hepzibah is on the loose again…

Short Notes for This Week

…so, yeah, Chad has been holding down the fort while I’ve been dealing with a cyst in my foot and the corresponding difficulty getting around, but now I’ve got some sort of cold on top of it and can’t breathe very well. In no particular order, then, some short notes on this week:

  • I read Hit-Monkey. It didn’t particularly offend me, but I’m rather wary of Daniel Way’s tendency to overcomplicate nice, clean premises. Art’s great, though.
  • The last Phonogram: The Singles Club is out now. Gillen and McKelvie say it’s the last Phonogram ever, and I’m sad to see it go. I’d like to do a proper review and eulogy for the bastard child of Charles de Lint and Lester Bangs, but that’ll have to wait until I can reliably breathe through my nose again.
  • There’s a preview in the back of Hit-Monkey for Louise Simonson’s X-Factor Forever, which is Simonson picking the title up where she left off in the 1990s. I know better than to buy X-books that are just pitched at the nostalgia demographic, but damned if I don’t like seeing Scott, Jean, and Baby Nathan Christopher all smiles again. The life of a 30something X-fan is fraught with such dilemmas.
  • On the upside, whatever else is going on in X-Factor Forever, it probably doesn’t involve gratuitous mind control plotlines. I also don’t expect much “BDSM imagery as metaphor for inherent spiritual corruption.” Ahem.
  • S.W.O.R.D. #4 has snouty!Beast and snouty!UNIT, as well as a scene that must’ve made letterer Dave Lanphear rue the day he signed on with Gillen’s disreputable outfit. So much love.
  • We were totally going to pick up Hellblazer: Pandemonium today. Really. A Delano/Jock Hellblazer book is up everyone in the Department’s alley… so, of course, our store was totally sold out when we got there. Congratulations, Jamie and Jock, I think you’ve got a hit on your hands.
  • BPRD: King of Fear #2 has a Kate Corrigan A-plot, and I love me some Kate Corrigan. I’m convinced her current relationship is doomed– assuming her boyfriend doesn’t get jumped into the BPRD the way people in Charlie Stross’s Bob Howard books get jumped into the Laundry– but such is the way of the Hellboy universe.
  • Mark Waid’s conducting an eloquent defense of Captain America (in light of today’s Tea Party controversy) over on Twitter.
  • I’ve got the last issue of Strange and the third Daytripper here, too. Not up to reading them tonight.

Again, sorry for my absence. I am still aiming for Understanding Comics on Friday if at all possible, now that I’m not hobbling around snarfing down Darvocet like a cut-rate Dr. House. (Not that that wasn’t entertaining on some levels.)

Gillen confirms end of S.W.O.R.D.

The cover to S.W.O.R.D. #1, by John Cassaday and Laura Martin.

Beast and Brand bravely meet their fate.

Kieron Gillen confirmed the end of S.W.O.R.D. today in a post on his workblog. Issue #5 will conclude the series, and, in Gillen’s words, “collect into an agreeably intense little trade.”

While I love the book and am hoping for a comeback in the form of the occasional special or backup story in one of the X-books, I agree that S.W.O.R.D. faced an uphill battle in a tight market. Gillen notes that an X-book is expected to sell and sell well right out of the gate, and S.W.O.R.D.‘s sales numbers landed it firmly in the lower end of Marvel’s mid-list. Steven Sanders’ snout-endowed take on Hank McCoy provoked storms of fanboy derision from Marvel readers who weren’t willing to run with the redesign. An adventuring couple like Beast and Brand is, arguably, too much of a niche for a Big Two title (witness the repeated attempts to find a winning formula for Green Arrow and Black Canary over at DC, under Judd Winick and then Andrew Kreisberg).

Despite the bad news, Gillen encourages fans to continue to send notes of support to Marvel, on the theory that expressing your opinion of any title helps a publisher figure out what people want in the long run. S.W.O.R.D. is no longer being solicited past issue 5, so trying to preorder to boost the numbers is probably a lost cause– but it’s certainly not wasted effort to point out to Marvel that you liked a good rousing adventure romp.

I’m looking forward to more Agent Brand in Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D., but all this ruckus just reminds me that I’ve got to pick up the Captain Britain and MI-13 trades. It seems that whenever I make mine Marvel, Marvel turns around and makes mine irrelevant to their larger strategy.

Fan Activism: Fall on Your S.W.O.R.D.!

Abigail Brand and the Beast, by Steven Sanders.

Abigail Brand and the Beast, by Steven Sanders.

I reviewed it yesterday, so now’s a good time to mention that Greg Hyatt over at NerderyBlog thinks there’s cause for concern about the longevity of Marvel’s S.W.O.R.D. He’s rallying fans to show their support by mailing a special flyer to Marvel headquarters, presumably on the theory that a minor mail avalanche will have a greater impact than yelling about the book on the Internet. (It’s a good theory! I approve!)

ICv2’s the December ’09 Top 300 Actual numbers show S.W.O.R.D.‘s second issue firmly lodged at #141 with 15,113 copies sold– ahead of a number of critically well-received titles like Criminal: The Sinners, Chew, and Scalped. However, that’s still a 31% sales drop from the 21,988 copies the premiere issue sold in November, and the fluctuating state of Marvel’s publishing slate means we can’t really know if the title will be dropped in the near future. (Does anyone know what’s going on with Incredible Hercules, while we’re on that topic?)

The closest thing S.W.O.R.D. fans have to an official statement comes from writer Kieron Gillen, who says he hasn’t heard anything one way or the other. However, Gillen does cite the sales charts as the impetus for Greg’s fan movement– so if you’re feeling the Beast and Brand love, you might want to print up Greg’s premade PDF, add your own polite note of support, and mail it off to Marvel HQ.

(Also, if you’d like a full-size version of that adorable Beast and Brand pic, grab it here.)

Review: S.W.O.R.D. #3

“Lockheed & Load”

S.W.O.R.D. #3 cover by Cassaday and Martin.

S.W.O.R.D. #3 cover

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Penciler: Steven Sanders
Inker: Craig Yeung
Colorist: Matt WIlson
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Cover by John Cassaday and Laura Martin

I admit it. I’m a big, fat, hopeless sucker for S.W.O.R.D. I’d be one even if I didn’t have regular back-and-forth with Steven Sanders on Twitter. I’d be one if I’d never met Kieron Gillen and found him to be the kind of creator who always has time to talk to a fan.

(There. Now I’ve done all my full disclosure up front.)

What’s not to like, really? It’s a Dark Reign spinoff book that largely ignores the earthbound aspects of that mega-crossover. Hank McCoy is honestly smitten with his green-haired beloved, Abigail Brand… who seems like she reciprocates the feeling, when she doesn’t have ten other action items on her agenda. Lockheed drinks, swears, roughs up Henry Peter Gyrich’s goons with great abandon, and makes dubious deals with the enigmatic UNIT, an alien artifact locked up in S.W.O.R.D.’s basement.

By the by, if you don’t like drinking, swearing dragons with personality disorders, it would be better for you if you just stopped reading now. Department H has nothing to interest you in that case.

Issue three brings us to the conclusion of Gyrich’s “Operation Grace,” an attempt to round up all of the aliens who work for S.W.O.R.D. and bring them under control. This is part of his larger agenda– the eventual deportation of all aliens on Earth– and it plays out, like most major events in the book, at lightning speed. Gillen recently described the book’s narrative style as “hyper-compression,” and it’s true. Expository dialogue is at a bare minimum, subtext is everything, and Sanders packs his scenes with painstaking technical detail (check out UNIT’s cell, complete to the wiring and life support). It’s a busy, breathless approach that still manages to remain accessible.

Speaking of UNIT, this issue begins to peel back the layers of mystery around everyone’s favorite sociopathic android super-genius– or, well, maybe it doesn’t. In three issues, Gillen’s set UNIT up as a reliably unreliable narrator; sure, he’s telling the truth as he sees it, but he’s not above omitting details, dropping broad hints, or just toying with the staff to his own ends. UNIT’s big discussion with Beast this issue begins with an origin sequence and ends in the opening moves of a chess match, which UNIT promises will end in “mate in 18.” Are we getting a hint about how many issues it will take for UNIT’s ultimate plan to unfold? I don’t know, but I’m half-tempted to keep a chessboard around for my own reference as the game progresses.

(Chad watched me play Dragon Age: Origins one night and drew comparison between UNIT and Shale, DA:O’s gleefully misanthropic golem. Kieron’s reply to a tweeted inquiry was “They’d certainly get on. They’re very personable.” Take from that what you will, comic geeks with RPG-fan leanings…)

On the Beast end of things, Sanders continues to render him in extravagantly snouty fashion, a decision that’s raised some fan hackles. I don’t share the hate; I think snouty!Beast works well for his role as S.W.O.R.D.’s resident holy fool. Hank’s renounced his ties to Scott’s X-Men and the new Utopian order and gone haring off after his girlfriend, armed with only his superior intellect and a tray of blueberry muffins. He’s comic relief and worldly wisdom in one adorable package. He’s throwing himself into Brand’s cause as much to remind her that there’s life outside of it as to support it, and I can’t argue with that depiction of their relationship. (Shit, they have a close relationship, and it shows no signs of being abruptly dissolved to suit editorial whim, which is more of a positive vibe than I get from most partnered Marvel heroes.)

One small editorial quibble, too: I know the issue title is “Lockheed & Load,” because it was on Marvel’s site when the solicitation came out… but it’s nowhere to be found in the actual issue. A bit puzzling, that.

Definitely a rollicking read, though, with Sanders’ art firming up (although Gyrich’s a little long in the face on page 3) and Gillen continuing to find high-adventuring romantic comedy in the current grim state of Marvel’s alien affairs. Plus, Lockheed spends most of the issue in full draconic John McClane mode, crawling through ductwork and creating mayhem in his wake. As I said, what’s not to like?